Beware the allure of this garden for it will deceive you. Although the path leading towards it may look peaceful, it is anything but. Just a short distance through the gates, between the leaves, lurks sinister and hidden secrets. Invasive kudzu covers and chokes out almost everything as indigenous plant species struggle for sunlight and sustenance. Only a dead and empty city of bark, flowers, and grass you will find.
An infection has corrupted the soil, dry and brittle lichen cover the earth and all that was once alive. Carnivorous plants feast on helpless insects as small birds and other animals of the garden’s floor succumb to the toxic venom of enchanting but poisonous flowers. Although an occasional shaft of sunlight pierces through to the garden floor, giving false hope of a burgeoning and verdant future, an indestructible blight has descended upon this now dead land.
Appropriately titled The Garden, this dreadful tale has been woven into dark sound by the group Uglyhead, led by musician Jake Alejo. Along with supporting musicians, Alejo spent approximately three years on the material that comprises The Garden.The first year focused on gathering field recordings and other sounds, then the second year was used to convert those recordings into sounds that would fit into the record’s garden-themed concept. The third year saw Alejo and fellow musicians recording the album in various places and ultimately completing the process by using a technique called ‘layback mastering’ to give the songs a warm, tape-saturated sound. The album does sound warm and saturated with an organic appeal, but still retains the ability to stand next to modern digital recordings in terms of clarity.
Doom metal is also mentioned as a style employed by Uglyhead, but I’m extremely skeptical about that genre tag here. Perhaps I can be forgiven by Alejo and company on this personal discrepancy as it is bands like My Dying Bride, Winter, Disembowelment , etc. that have established my view on what doom metal should (or should not) sound like. More appropriately, I’d say that those passages being labeled as doom are more closely aligned with what some might call a post-rock aesthetic. No matter what you choose to call it, the material on The Garden is bombastic and rather heavy.
The sound exhibited on The Garden could easily be a combination of alternative metal and gothic rock with heavier industrial/electronic elements. It can get pretty heavy, dense and… well, just plain old ugly at times in this garden, and I think that’s what Uglyhead intended all along. Through the Gates and Between the Leaves start the album off strongly with intoxicating amounts of industrial percussion, mounds of distorted guitar and high-pitched shouting drenched in copious amount of reverb. Uglyhead follows this template throughout the rest of the album, with slight variations being offered from song to song. While some songs on The Garden might favor a synth-based approach over guitar dominance, others seem securely rooted in electronic soil, but the alternative rock/metal foundation is seemingly always the steady and firm underlying structure.
Although much of Alejo’s clean singing delivery and harsher distorted screaming sections on The Garden are complementary to the rest of the music, he also spends some time singing in a regrettable Reznor-esque style that comes across as less effective (and even a bit whiny, if I am being honest here.) It’s unfortunate because everything else suffers because of it when he opts for this style. Album closer Blight, which is for the most part an adequate way to end the album, trails off with softly strummed and processed acoustic guitar that’s appropriately dour in tone but marred in its purpose by Alejo’s irritating sobbing.
At times the songs are so layered and expansive (even pretty in a swirling, wall-of-sound way) that, interestingly enough, they create feelings of the opposite: an initial splendor gives way to mania, disorientation, and sometimes exhaustion. Much like the effect a carnivorous plant might have as it lures it’s prey into its tentacled maw, the food source is lured in by false beauty and seeking sustenance, but is eventually trapped and succumbs to asphyxiation.
The instrumental track Drosera is a fine example of this. (Drosera is the carnivorous plant that is featured on the album’s cover.) What starts off as a high-energy and slightly manic sounding electronica piece soon organically decomposes into a frightening mass of stretched sounds, corrupted drums, and noise. There’s a lot going on in this song and while listening to it (and the rest of the album) can be exhilarating, trying to take the whole album on in one listen can be fatiguing, depending on your constitution going into it. This is less a criticism and more a warning of the album’s magnitude and vigor.
In spite of some of the singing within The Garden that I felt dulled the music surrounding it, there’s still quite a great deal to absorb and appreciate about the album. The music is beefy, hypnotic, and extremely well recorded. At times it recalled an approach that had as much to do with Jesu, Isis, or even Alice In Chains as it did Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. Field recordings, electronica, and even bits of noise were utilized in ways that tied the album’s theme back into the musical proceedings (in addition to making everything sound that much more interesting) and therefore elevated the group out of being just another industrial rock band without much to offer. Uglyhead are not the most original industrial rock band on the planet, but they know how to make an absorbing album that crosses genres and could potentially offer wide appeal to metal heads, goths, industrial freaks, and electronica geeks alike.
01) The Path
02) Through the Gates
03) Between the Leaves
04) Empty City