Kowloon Walled City – Grievances (4 stars)

Kowloon Walled City: Grievances

Incredibly smart but unflashy third album from KWC

The original Kowloon Walled City no longer stands. Demolished in the 1990s, this district of Hong Kong was a densely populated high-rise shantytown, notorious for drugs, prostitution and Triads. This San Francisco band may have taken its name, but the key component of their sound is a far cry from the city’s cramped, claustrophobic conditions. Their third album, a meditation on the modern workplace, is markedly sparse and airy, constructed from punctuated space and unexpected prettiness – albeit within the context of extremely heavy slow-burn experimental post-hardcore.

Purely sonically, this is a stunning record – big, clean guitars, used as knives, not hammers, over a vicious bass bite and drums that hang and resound, full of anticipation, tension and release. And the vocals are one of Kowloon’s main weapons – where others in this milieu go for the guttural growl or the manly roar, Scott Evans’ anguished howl is purer, softer, full of sorrow and frustration dredged up from the belly.

Compositionally, it’s incredibly smart but unflashy. At first, it appears simple and straightforward, but the arrangements are deceptively complex and wilfully elusive, focusing on elision and clashing sour chords. A key strategy finds the band building from an austere beginning to a colossal, climactic riff that repeats and repeats – although these passages’ hypnotic qualities are sometimes underplayed, and would benefit from being stretched out even further. Still, the glide from slippery to solid is hugely effective, with massive slabs of sound delicately arranged like a floral bouquet. And what’s most impressive is how the riffs all feel purposeful in an emotional and narrative sense. They evolve, twist and push the songs forward. They’re beautiful, brittle and brutal all at the same time.

On the downside, there’s definitely a formula at play, and it’s difficult to tell the songs apart even after several listens. But KWC have hit upon such a uniquely powerful and viscerally poignant sound that this is a minor concern.

Out 9 Oct on Neurot

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