The three-piece Bully Mammoth have been one of Portland's more mercurial rock acts for years now, hurtling between noise, cathartic drone, fuzzed-out college rock, and weird freakouts weaving in and out of pop conventions. Amassing several years’ recording output, including last year’s ambitious noisy/beautiful odyssey Let It Bully, the group have been a wild ride. But most wild rides slow down, and this one has gotten better as it has.
Over two EPs of seven total tracks released this summer (the band’s fifth and sixth EPs in total — they’re fans of the format), Bully Mammoth have crossed some sort of threshold. Is it accessibility? Maybe. Sam Rich, Kevin McPhee, and Derek Gierhan have been interesting since the beginning, but their music has occasionally seemed like the sort of band that comes with a caveat. ("You’ll mostly like them.") Here, they’re much more cohesive, fusing those discrete elements into a sound that listeners will find a lot more accessible, but retains the energy, intensity and experimentalism they’ve had since the beginning.
They're also a vibe band, that vibe being consistently dark, moody, and driving. (It's not Daydream Nation territory, but it's ballpark.) EP6's "Frost heave" invokes The National’s early works — not the dad-rock of late, but the discordantly melodic anthems from 15 years ago. Matt Berninger's trademark sing-speak mumble has always been one of the more inexplicably satisfying vocals in indie-rock, and here, McPhee's vocals are in the same vein, never straying outside the pocket of the song, an introvert's dream, while the lumbering rhythms and heart-scraping melodies pile up around him.
While song ideas are smoothed out, the forms the band present them in are still off-kilter. EP5 opens with "Loose Tooth," a nine-and-a-half minute journey that sounds like a several fuzzed-out, high-compression post-punk burners collapsed into an orchestral post-rock epic. Later, the 18-minute moodboard "California King" plays like one of their now-trademark cathartic epics (like Let It Bully's nine-minute "Couch").
As he does with many of their tracks, Gierhan's percussion allows the emotional fold of "Salty" to open up. his skittering rhythm provides ballast between Rich and McPhee’s tension and spaciousness, letting the song tumble out as a seasick loner dirge. McPhee's halting, often whispered vocals feel like they live somewhere inside the psyche of the listener rather than transmitted by a songwriter — a haunting effect. his vocals often follow the rhythmic patterns of his guitar, occasionally making it difficult to get inside his lyrics, but here he sounds closer to the listener than ever. For my money and time, EP6 is where Bully Mammoth hit their stride — three songs at six minutes apiece, each textured and huge. while guitar solos and squalls on previous efforts sometimes pulled the listener from the songs’ emotional content, here it drives it. On opener "Sugar of Lead," a slide guitar becomes song's main engine, coasting for a ecstatically downward six-and-a-half minutes. Both subsequent tracks carry the torch forward, the most cohesive and satisfying of Bully Mammoth's standalone releases.
Taken together, these two EPs constitute a 54-minute album, more accessible and engaging without sacrificing mystery. They may not be as loud, but they’re no less huge.
EP5 + EP6 | by Bully Mammoth | https://bullymammoth.bandcamp.com
This article has been edited to clarify a reference about Bully Mammoth's vocals. Both Sam Rich and Kevin McPhee share vocal duties, but the song that prompted a reference to The National was sung by Kevin McPhee, not Sam Rich.