Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
While other aggressive bands flirt with chaos, Coalesce’s discography is a riot of sonic disorder, destroying everything in its path at the same time that it unravels itself. But it wasn’t until the band released Ox and the companion OXEP that Coalesce fully embraced its dustbowl environs.
Metalcore (or what passes as metalcore) bands’ merchandise is now a major decorating and fiscal force at Hot Topic, so it’s not surprising that the moniker has become a dirty word. But, at its roots, metalcore combines the verve and self-awareness of hardcore punk with metal’s technical proficiency—a combination both inevitable and invaluable. Throughout the ’80s, metal heads and hardcore kids often didn’t get along, despite, or possibly because, anger is a central force in both genres. Then bands like Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front opened the floodgates, making hardcore more abrasive by utilizing the speed and amplification of thrash. Coalesce has never been too concerned with playing fast, but this combination of hardcore’s energy with metal’s striving for technical progression is the center of gravity for this epic Kansas City band.
Coalesce formed in 1994, and, throughout the first half of its career, the quartet constantly veered toward implosion. Original drummer Jim Redd quit after a heinous tour that made him hate the hardcore scene. Bassist Stacy Hilt left after a particularly gnarly gig that involved Jes Steineger smashing his guitar to pieces and James Dewees throwing his floor tom into the crowd, injuring at least one fan. Amid this chaos, Coalesce released some of the most influential and profound metalcore albums in existence. Sean Ingram’s barrel-chested roars; Nathan Ellis’ simultaneously dexterous and crushing bass playing; Dewees’ manic percussion; and Steineger’s Jimi Hendrix-on-bath-salts guitar work: Coalesce is in its own world.
Give Them Rope came out in 1997, and Coalesce recorded Functioning On Impatience that same year. While the former is Coalesce in its most chaotic state, Functioning On Impatience is a shape-shifting mass of pandemonium glued together with nervous energy. Like an orgasm that releases mercury instead of dopamine, these records blaze a swath through the brain.
During the next two years, Coalesce played a flurry of wild shows. Then, following a 1999 tour when Steineger carried around a brown bag of bibles and obsessively read them instead of interacting with his bandmates, Coalesce broke up. Having recently signed to Relapse, however, the band was legally obligated to put out an album, so Coalesce recorded 0:12 Revolution In Just Listening, which showcases beautifully trashy Southern riffs amid noisy and oddly timed metalcore.
In the late ’90s, the members of Coalesce were just kids with strong personalities, so of course shit got out of control. After a much-needed break from each other, as well as time to grow as individuals, Coalesce reformed in 2005 with Jason Richardson on drums and soon started writing Salt And Passage (2007), a two-song EP that intermixes Coalesce’s signature math-professor layouts with a newfound heaviness in the form of Richardson’s bulldozer percussion. If Dale Crover of The Melvins and Damon Che of Don Caballero had a bastard child, it would be Nathan Richardson.
Now approaching the music and each other as adults, Ingram, Steineger, Ellis, and Richardson started work on what might be the band’s finest recordings: Ox and OXEP (2009), which function as sides of the same coin. The Ox recordings mirror Coalesce’s home state in the form of sparse Western interludes while retaining the band’s electrified intensity. In many coming-of-age stories, one hallmark of the protagonist’s maturity is when they start to understand how their home has shaped them and learn to cherish those qualities. The Ox albums are that hallmark for Coalesce.
Though released six months after Ox, Coalesce wrote OXEP first, so it’s the musical precursor. On opening track “Ox To Ore,” Richardson announces his presence with a pummeling industrial intro that sounds like something the drummers of Kylesa would write if they were remade as cyborgs. “The Blind Eye” then escapes into the world, demolishing everything in its path like a rogue group of General Sherman’s soldiers.
Showing a brilliant evolution for Coalesce, “Joyless In Life” is a sparse epic that could easily function as part of the soundtrack to any of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns. This quiet track emphasizes the buffalo stampede of “To My Ruin,” and the following song, “Absent In Death,” channels mean-spirited grunge through a Western scale to produce the aural version of a saloon brawl. “Through Sparrows I Rest” reminds fans of Functioning On Impatience that Coalesce can still write hardcore sing-a-longs that are simultaneously catchy and pulverizing, and OXEP closes with “Ore To Earth,” giving the release a circular end by returning to the layered industrial of the first song.
Like OXEP, Ox nudges against perfection. “The Plot Against My Love” bolts from industrial creaking into a throat-constricting deluge. It also showcases a brief, Southern-tinged guitar lead that could lead to an actual spiritual awakening. “The Plot Against My Love” regresses into bullheaded rock, setting the stage for the startlingly crushing, “The Comedian In Question,” which combines the monolithic trudge of Floor with odd time signatures and weirdly infectious clean vocals.
“Wild Ox Moan” offsets this heaviness with an intro of low-fi blues that quickly traverses into a hall of shattered mirrors. “Designed To Break A Man” sounds like a steroid-crazed The Jesus Lizard with a degree in calculus, and “Where Satires Sour” is a hardpan acoustic track that could’ve been written by a cattle rustler in the 1800s, providing the first of a few uneasy rests on Ox. “The Purveyor Of Novelty And Nonsense” also shows Coalesce integrating the musical history of its home, but this time in the form of Westernized sludge. Listen to this song the next time you ford a river in a covered wagon.
Eighth cut “In My Wake, For My Own” summons ’90s noise rock with jangly guitar twitches and bizarre, little-kid-on-paint-chips vocals. The track then builds into lumbering grunge that defeats the brain and deflates the muscles before the instruments drop out for wordless, chain gang-style vocals. Working as a segue into the final portion of Ox, “We Have Lost Our Will” is a melancholic ballad of the Kansas plains. With bleak acoustic work and smartly placed xylophone hits, “We Have Lost Our Will” moves like a tumbleweed in a slight breeze, and the song is a spot-on portrait of the region that Coalesce calls home.
Gaining power from the contrast of the preceding interlude, the next two songs chew through dirt like a newly sharpened tiller. “Dead Is Dead” is a deconstructive ballad that creates the simultaneous urge to shout along with a crowd of hardcore kids and disappear into the sunset, alone. In the midst of horrendous metalcore, Richardson guides the band into a battle march with traditional and insistent snare rolls. The track then climaxes in a waltzing mountain range of group vocals and dirt-caked instrumentation. When Coalesce launched into this section at a live show in their hometown of Kansas City, Steineger’s body waved and shook as if out of his control; Ellis and Richardson induced rhythmic earthquakes; and Ingram hopped off the stage and ran around the floor, at which point a fan jumped onto his back and hung on like a baby gorilla.
Riding the wave of critical praise for Ox and OXEP, Coalesce toured and played multiple festivals from 2009 to 2012. Since then, the legendary Kansas City quartet has again hunkered down, leaving Coalesce with an uncertain future. But even if Coalesce has already made its final album, the band’s last two releases would be a fitting bookend for its tumultuous and endlessly influential career.