Release Date: May 18, 2010
Record label: Hydra Head
Genre(s): Rock, Metal
The term "doom" – the microgenre that this Athens, Georgia trio are often filed under – doesn't even begin to describe the bleak, base-metal sounds they've been excavating for nearly two decades. And so it is on their sixth album: discordant riffs are hammered out and left to hang in the air, pierced by frontman Creston Spiers's tormented howl. The drums and bass don't so much set the pace as embark on a world-weary trudge while dissonant guitars weave sickly melodies, vying to see which can nosedive into the dirt first.
After reading a message from a disgruntled fan who thought Life… The Best Game in Town was too accessible, Harvey Milk wanted to reassert themselves as one of the most difficult bands in sludge metal. As the lore goes, Creston Spiers was so incensed (or inspired) by the comment that he didn’t even wait to get home to write the album, but transcribed the entire thing on manuscript paper in the van while the band was still on tour. The result of that effort, A Small Turn of Human Kindness, finds the band returning to the top of their game with an album that is as heartbreaking as it is crushing.
Over the course of 15 years, Harvey Milk have evolved from their sludge-metal roots like a slowly unfurling, colossal middle finger. While there will always be those who consider 1995’s full-length, Courtesy and Good Will Towards Men, the band’s finest, the albums since the group reformed (after eight years off) in 2006 have witnessed a mastery of their particular thing—the plodding chromatics, fuzzed-out leads, airplane hangar rhythm section, hyper-melodic passages, and frontman Creston Spiers’ unmistakable vocal delivery—a tortured, harmonic growl that keeps getting better with age. A Small Turn of Human Kindness continues the process, pairing it down to a little under 40 minutes of the usual dosage of brute force, dark humor, and palpable misanthropy (self-loathing included).
Earlier this year, two of the three members of Harvey Milk reviewed their entire discography to date with an unabashedly negative slant. Taken at face value, Stephen Tanner and Kyle Spence, Harvey Milk’s bassist and drummer, respectively, seem barely able to hide their disgust for their own work; but as a bit of caustic self-deprecation, their anti-humorous ravings succeed as uncharacteristically canny self-promotion. Although musically versatile, Harvey Milk have developed into a one-joke act, that joke being their perpetual inability to crack a smile.
Georgia's Harvey Milk may be wickedly brilliant, tectonically huge, and caustically hilarious, but they don't seem all that happy about any of it. Still their ever-present grimace has never felt quite as fixed as it does on their latest, A Small Turn of Human Kindness. Many longtime fans found 2008's Life... The Best Game in Town, which played at times like a sampler of Milk's many past successes, neither weird nor challenging enough, and Small Turn is a sharp shift towards the slow, somber, and fucking bleak.
For an album as bold as 2008’s masterful Life…The Only Game in Town was, what was conspicuously absent from that record was the ugliness that Harvey Milk had excelled at capturing in previous years. Sure, Life had more than its share of bleak moods, but the band’s focus was more on toying with conventional songwriting, the album loaded with pop culture references and juxtaposing accessible melodies with their usual bruising brand of sludge/doom metal. Although it was not meant to be specifically a “crossover” record, its broad-ranging sounds did draw in listeners from the indie rock side of the fence along with underground sludge fans, and that alone would be cause for alarm among the more insular listeners who had been into Harvey Milk for the last dozen years.
There’s nothing pleasant about this record... There’s nothing pleasant about this record. Where previously Harvey Milk might liven up their grizzled sludge with some skewed ZZ Top worship, here they sound entirely drained and downtrodden, lacking the energy to move much beyond a plodding funeral dirge. “I’m just a broken man, look at my broken hands,” howls Creston Spiers on ‘I Know This Is No Place For You’, his words impacting like a sledgehammer to the stomach.
'Progression' is a bit of a weasel word when it comes to discussing the career arc of Harvey Milk. They first came into existence 18 years ago, spending eight of those years (1998 to 2006) disbanded, and in that time have released seven studio albums. Although said albums have demonstrated the Georgian sludge metal ensemble's eclecticism and genre-based gazumping of expectations, it's hard to mull over Harvey Milk's catalogue and conclude that they have matured or evolved or, yes, progressed in any obvious and linear way.
Few albums in 2008 were quite as intriguing as Life...The Best Game In Town by the reformed noise rockers Harvey Milk. The band can't really be described any other way. Contemporaries of the Jesus Lizard and Sleep in the early '90s, their live shows are still dominated by the same pierced, tattooed droogs you'd find at those shows, and their fanbase is still dominated by people from the South and Midwest.