|Art by Randy Ortiz|
Rarely have I been asked to write a review because of my absurd amount of bias, but when Metal Bandcamp approached me to review Vilipend's debut full-length, Inamorata, it was specifically because the editor knew this was a record I was intimately close to. I was hesitant, at first, but eventually agreed, because the opportunity to analyze a record from the inside out is something I so rarely get to do.
I've reviewed Vilipend's live performances before — with disclaimers. The vocalist/lyricist, Christopher Gramlich, is my partner; I consider all three other members of the group (bassist Mike Crossley, drummer Adam “Skeletor” McGillivray and guitarist Derek Del Vecchio) to be my good friends. Even guest guitarist Luke Roberts is someone I'm fond of and have shared beers with.
|Photo by François Carl Duguay|
There is no possibility of objectivity here — there is no journalistic distance. This is the work of someone who shares my life, someone I trust, admire and believe in. I think it is incredible. But, I suppose, it is interesting, through an almost-impossibly bent lens, to explain exactly why I think that — where my admiration comes from. I don't think I could be with someone whose art I didn't respect.
There's also the fact that I got to watch Inamorata being made. When I started dating Chris, most of the songs on the record were written, but I watched several of them grow from scratch. I watched Chris agonize over lyrics, drawing from painful experiences he'd suffered over the past few years: his recovery from a devastating back injury and subsequence dependence on painkillers; the end of a relationship; and his struggles with depression and addiction, physical and mental illness. We'd talk about words and language, the poetry of what he was writing, and I was consistently amazed with how much he was willing to give of himself, how much pain and insecurity he was willing to expose in the pursuit of creating authentic art.
I watched Vilipend agonize over the recording and mastering process as well. Chris became sick with a terrible case of bronchitis and sinusitis, which he picked up while playing a freezing basement show in New Jersey and subsequently brought home to me (band dudes: worse than toddlers for transferring infectious diseases), and was only barely well enough to track his vocals after all the other recording was completed. I watched them capture incredible sounds with Leon Taheny, but struggle with the mixing and mastering, as Leon was unfamiliar with the tone and texture of aggressive music, and then ultimately make the decision to absorb the additional expense of working with Dave Sheldon. I watched the band pore over multiple versions of the record, tweaking the mix, texture and timbre obsessively until they were happy with it, a process that took months. So when I listen to the clarity of the drums, the precision of the meaty heft of the bass or a moment of sparkling transcendence in the guitars, I remember the agony of that process as much as I appreciate the quality of the final result.
I watched Vilipend initially make an agreement with one label who, after Vilipend waited several months for a formal announcement from, suddenly reneged, causing the band to unexpectedly find the album back on the market. They ultimately ended up in a far better situation with A389 Recordings (Full of Hell, Eyehategod, Ringworm, etc.), but that setback cost them time and energy, and in the end meant that Inamorata had been finished for a year before it actually appeared in the world. I watched Chris battle the frustration of that, and the whole group attempt to remain optimistic and creative, move on to new material while Inamorata hung in limbo.
I also got to see the physical design of the CD and LP versions of the record evolve, with beautiful art by Randy Ortiz, and be in the room when the first gorgeous box of vinyl arrived in the mail. I've gotten to watch them assemble, deconstruct and rebuild set lists, varying their performances and always striving for more intense and memorable shows. I've watched them all push their bodies and minds as far as they will go in the pursuit of creativity and catharsis, and I've had an especially close opportunity to watch Chris work through that, finding peace in exhaustion and stillness after expressing agony. Knowing the demons he is trying to work out intimately, it's strange to listen to a record that deals with some of the things we've had to contend with together. For example, at a moment when he was dealing with a major shift in his medication, attempting to go off of one combination of pills in order to start another, he went into a vicious state of withdrawal, complete with seizures and hallucinations. To listen to that exorcized, musically, is difficult.
It's also a record I am ridiculously proud of, in a way that claims no ownership, merely appreciation. Someone I love helped create something I believe is a genuine and powerful work of art, and there is no feeling quite like that.
So, the record itself. In terms of its sounds, Inamorata is constantly wrestling with physical discomfort and pain, trying to translate that into sound. Pain is one of the most personal and lonely experiences, and, in many ways, it's impossible to describe, but Vilipend make a concerted effort to accomplish this via music rather than words. The riffs often crawl and writhe around each other, evoking someone trying desperately to escape their skin — the confines of a broken body. The bass lines throb and ache, forming a low counterpoint to the sharper, more blistering pain embodied in the guitars. The drumming is an ordered act of assault, as clamourous as it is athletic, bashing itself against the walls of each track's thinly padded walls. This is exemplified nowhere as clearly as in the opening battery of “To Impede the Healing Process,” which comes out wailing and swinging.
Which isn't to say the songs are pure chaos, far from it. The structures simply follow an unfamiliar narrative. There is no peace, no resolution to the songs, as there is no neat progression to their stories. Where the traditional arc would begin in pain and follow through to serenity and redemption, Inamorata tells darker tales that instead end with endurance, betrayal and defiance. There is no mercy from the outside world to be found: love is always painful and unrequited, the world always too bright and merciless to the sufferer. The hope that is found within is bleaker, but in may ways stronger: all we have to get us through the darkest moments in our lives are stubbornness and defiance, the capacity for our bodies and minds to endure. The intro to “The Thin Red Line Between Salvation and Damnation” captures this most clearly, for me, with a pounding rhythm and Chris's spitting, vicious delivery, which is as aching as it is impudent.
|Photo by François Carl Duguay|
It's strange to listen to his voice transform as well, to hear someone I know as soft-spoken and introverted suddenly become a vessel of bile and violence. He has a way of singing, both harsh and clean, that sounds as though he's hurling the sounds from himself, trying desperately to expel the poison.
Maybe it is because I have a half-sleeve tattoo of Gustave Dore's Lucifer Falling on my arm, but I find the last song, “Meant To Be...,” hopeful in its absolute defeat. The huge, towering chorus of “it was meant to be” that gradually evolves into “it was meant to be/ nothing at all” is a release, an acknowledgement of loss in all its completeness and complexity. It is a song for being at the bottom of your life, the cellar of yourself, finding nothing left and instead beginning to build. It is Lucifer laying on the very floor of Hell and deciding to continue the war. It is, in response to the failure of a relationship or an effort that consumed all of your heart and life, the possibility for that energy to finally be repurposed. In defeat, there's a chance to begin anew.
I am reading my own things into this, of course. I see Inamorata, thematically, in many ways as an exorcising of the ugliest things that Chris was dealing with both before and after we met. It's an album not necessarily of triumph, in the traditional sense, but of expulsion and redirection. For the sour and anguished themes of the record, it also represents a chance to begin again, scarred but clean.
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