(BadWolf has been missing in action for a while, spending much of his blog time helping to run the esteemed Invisible Oranges, but today he re-surfaces with a new post in an NCS series he created to take us off our usual beaten paths,)
I’m pretty certain I am the strongest proponent of California resident Jerimiah Johnson’s one-man industrial rock-pop outfit The Ugly Façade that exists. However I’m pretty sure that’s more a result of lack of exposure than a mark of quality, because The Ugly Façade is the real deal, as evidenced by Johnson’s latest album (more of an EP, really) Many Waters, now available at any price on Bandcamp.
I first became aware of The Ugly Façade in the wake of an article I wrote for Stereogum.com about Trent Reznor, the musician behind Nine Inch Nails. Reznor is one of my favorite songwriters on earth, and while Nine Inch Nails is not precisely metal, or extreme, the band has a large following in the metal subculture, and has had a profound influence on several groups, including The Dillinger Escape Plan, The Faceless, Author & Punisher, and others.
In that article, I opined that finding any artists who sound directly influenced by Reznor can be difficult. Johnson sent an email to Michael Nelson, my editor at Stereogum, in a harmless little act of self-promotion that got me hooked on the then-new Sinking Anthems LP. I devoured Johnson’s back catalog, and while I enjoy all of it, I felt that Anthems was the standout material. My wait for more of Johnson’s music is over—I’m probably one of the first to download Many Waters, and though it’s only five songs long, more of an EP than an album, I can still wholeheartedly recommend it.
The best way to promote The Ugly Façade is probably still the way that Johnson first did to me: if you like Nine Inch Nails, you will like this. Such reductionist CD-sticker logic pretty much annoys me, but in this instance it’s true. That’s Johnson’s greatest strength and greatest weakness: he sounds very much like one of the best pre-existing rock bands currently active right now.
That’s a bit of a backhanded compliment, yes, but consider that the metal underground has pretty much made a cottage industry around cloning boring and cloying sounds with diminishing returns (djent, I’m still not happy with you). That one man has successfully managed to clone one of the best sounds in contemporary music says something—especially since I think he’s the only decent Reznor-mimic there is, and Reznor himself has kind of stumbled for me since 2007’s Year Zero album.
On Many Waters Johnson hones in on his knack for great choruses, and in so doing weaves in some heretofore buried influences in his music. Where Sinking Anthems was dense, coated with dirty synthesizers, Many Waters is a bit more open and fun-sounding. The guitar lick on “Killer,” and the funky syncopated bass on “Just Another Itty Bitty Suicide” speak to the infectious-but-sophisticated pop music of the 80’s (something tells me homeboy likes Grace Jones).
I was instantly taken in by the opener, “Living it,” which sports a powerful chorus, and shows off Johnson’s expressive range. His voice has a reedy, folk-inflected timbre to it which, combined with liberal use of acoustic guitar, is what really made his previous LP stand apart from his influences. The folksiness is less apparent on the rest of the album, but its subtle incorporation into “Living It” puts the song over the edge.
But the absent folk instrumentation leaves room for other experiments. Take, for example the sudden, almost jubilant influx of gospel and soul in the title track. Johnson has recorded himself into a panoply of harmonizing voices, reaching back to the very roots of American rock and pop to inform what would otherwise be a pretty straightforward industrial rock song. The end result is celebratory and bright—jarringly so, considering his morose and pessimistic lyrics.
Johnson’s work is pretty much always gloomy, focused on the darker side of male sexuality, as well as loneliness and dejection. Lyrically these themes have been well-mined by alt-rock radio, but they can still resonate with me, especially from the lips of a talented lyricist. Too often, I think, metal shies way from emotional songwriting and winds up in fantastical nonsense and gobbledygook. I like The Ugly Façade’s approach better overall. Johnson’s at his best on the aforementioned “Killer” and “Just Another Itty Bitty Suicide,” where the energy of the music makes an interesting contrast with his lyrics.
My only real critique is the short length of the record, as I said, but there is one aspect of the music that I’m still grappling with: Johnson frequently lifts whole motifs from other songs. “Living It” is credited as being based off another song by folk outfit Snaex, and “Just Another Itty Bitty Suicide” borrows a hook from Peter Gabriel’s immortal song “Sledgehammer.” And while I’m not opposed to these sorts of things, I feel that they reinforce my sense that Johnson is still finding his voice.
The man has great influences and immaculate taste, but their incorporation into his own music could be smoother, more organic and original. Still, for a currently small internet audience, Johnson is crafting some masterful tunes which are just extreme enough to scratch my extreme spots while satisfying my pop appetite as well. Many Waters is both free and well worth your time.
Oh, and here’s the excellent Sinking Anthems as well. It’s so worth your time.