By Sarah Kitteringham
BeatRoute is proud to premiere the fourth full-length offering by sludge metallers Bison. You Are Not the Ocean You Are The Patient is released in Europe on June 23, and in North America on July 7. Stream the record below, and read our interview with guitarist and vocalist James Gnarwell.
“The songs are still the outpouring of hatred from my heart, trying to convert it to love.”
Thus begins Bison guitarist and vocalist James Gnarwell, who has anchored the band since their inception in 2006. The perennially crotchety musician has been through every frustrating, rewarding, agonizing, and triumphant moment with the band: from their signing to Metal Blade Records, to their explosion in popularity as the “party rock Mastodon,” to the agonizing frustration of being unceremoniously dropped, to growing up and past a caricature that never fit.
Subjected to the wringer of the music industry, Bison’s music has always been crushing, contemplative, and difficult to categorize. Like their city mates in Haggatha, they define the sound that came to dominate Vancouver’s metal scene in the 2000’s: that is, growling sludge metal interlaced with noise, grind, texture, and dynamics. Now, with a decade under their belts, a relatively new back end to their line-up, and a new record label, they are on the precipice of releasing their fourth studio album. Unsurprisingly, You Are Not the Ocean You Are the Patient is an absolute triumph. Stripped of pretense and expectation, Bison may have made their best album yet.
“I believe there is more texture, tension and mood setting on this record, but in the end I still want to blow your fucking head off with riffs,” explains Gnarwell.
“The older I get the more I want to introduce an almost false comfort level in the music, so the listener might be more susceptible to a jarring moment, to introduce life for an instant.”
Uncomfortably abrupt dynamics have long played a role in Bison’s music. On their full-length debut Quiet Earth (2008), the band builds up a palatable dread through a veil of drunken punk rock rage. “Wendigo Pt. 1 (Quest for Fire)” demonstrates this juxtaposition, incorporating a disarming wall of beautiful violin and cello between walls of swamp thick sound. This utilization of additional instrumentation has endured throughout their career, appearing on both 2010’s Dark Ages and to a lesser extent with noise integrations on 2012’s Lovelessness. It was shortly after the latter was released that the axe came down from their former label.
“They did teach us about the music business, and helped me realized that I fucking hated the music business,” explains Gnarwell.
“We parted ways knowing that we were not meant for each other. Our ethics did not align. I was tired of riding some fucking drunk rock and roll fantasy crash course.”
He continues, “We were a brand, we were a fucking machine. A drunken and stressed out machine. My advice: don’t get labeled the party band drinking 1000 beers, cause it’s fun for a spit in time, but after that, it’s a struggle to show people your fucking brains and ideas and what’s really in your head.”
Thematically, Bison has always musically responded to their surroundings. The stress of expectation reared its head so strongly on their previous full-length that the second track is literally named “Anxiety Puke/Lovelessness.”
After being served their walking papers by their label, the band took plenty of time to regroup. Both guitarists and vocalists, including Gnarwell and Dan And, had children. Members left. Bison soldiered on, albeit in a limping form.
“We are a family band. We have grown together and will be here for a while. There was never a moment when I thought we should break up,” offers Gnarwell.
“Why bother? [Drummer] Brad [MacKinnion] left, so long brother!”
MacKinnon was replaced in 2011 by Haggatha’s dynamic and engaging metronome, known colloquially as Matt Wood.
“Masa [Anzai, bassist] left, so long brother! They both fought the good fight. Never did we think to cash in on the ‘final show’ shit bands do.”
Instead, they went into hibernation. They released the two track One Thousand Needles EP in 2014; focused on raising their children, on recovering. They gained a new bassist, this time in the form of 3 Inches of Blood strummer Shane Clark.
“This new record took me almost three years to write,” offers Gnarwell of the period leading up to You Are Not the Ocean. He reflects on how different his life is now.
“I used to write a record in one drunken summer. I wrote this record in between getting to know my son, George and now my newest, Charlie. I had such a great balance that I could truly delve into what’s in me,” he reveals.
“I couldn’t get too lost in the darkness of the music I write because my family was there as my lifeline to pull me out. After a writing session for say, Dark Ages, I would just wake up on the floor of our foul, disgusting (though strangely beautiful) jam spot. Now I wake up and make breakfast for George and teach him about the world and experience that with him.”
A renewed sense of being and utter disinterest in the monetary logistics of releasing another record eventually inspired the band members to consider going a label once more. They eventually signed with Pelagic Records, a Berlin based label that is home to vast, contemplative bands like MONO, The Ocean, and Cult of Luna.
“Ultimately I had no time to self-release. Nobody in the band does,” explains Gnarwell.
“Raising my family is my priority, so why not try and find a label to help out.”
Ultimately, the label appears to be a strong fit. Bison’s newest record is vast. The songs feature less structure. The track lengths are longer; there are fewer vocal lines, and there is resolutely more space to breathe. It’s not as if the band has gone full ISIS (indeed, the punk howls and riffs are featured aplenty) but following the band’s arc and understanding their circumstances gives a mighty weight to the whole package. As Gnarwell explains, it’s not as “schizophrenic… It comes from being able to map it out and really digest the arrangements. In Squamish I now have a space at home to record all the demos. Meaning I can really sit with them, and get to know them, and see where they may go.”
This time to revisit and contemplate arrangements has made Bison grow out of the pissed-off-drunk-punk-persona. They are now headlong into curmudgeonly-dad-rock, which is where they could have (and maybe should have) been all along.
“My family gives me the strength to delve deeper into those dark places – the futility, darkness or any repugnant nature of our world there is to explore. They are there to pull me out and remind me of why I am here,” articulates Gnarwell.
“I need to keep my head on right so I can teach George and Charlie how to fucking rock and roll.”
He finishes, “Having love and a family won’t cure you of your draw to fucked up shit, it kind of holds onto you while you explore, which is a fucking beautiful thing.”
Order You Are Not the Ocean You Are The Patient from https://pelagic-records.com/. Bison will perform June 9 at Palomino Smokehouse and Bar (Calgary), June 10 at The Capital (Saskatoon), June 11 at the Windsor (Winnipeg), June 12 the Exchange (Regina), June 13 The Vat (Red Deer), June 14 at the Brixx (Edmonton), and June 16 at the Rickshaw (Vancouver).Bison, Palomino Smokehouse and Bar, the Brixx, The Capital, The Exchange, the Rickshaw, The Vat, The Windsor, You Are Not the Ocean You Are The Patient