Album Review: Glassjaw - Material Control

In the wake of the damning allegations facing Brand New’s frontman Jesse Lacey, Pitchfork writer Jenn Pelly wrote a thinkpiece about the sexism and the problematic misogyny of what she called “emo’s third wave.” In it, she discusses the now infamous lyrics used on Glassjaw’s debut studio album—“You can lead a whore to water—and you can bet she’ll drink and follow orders.” Pelly does not bring up the lyric, “Suck on the end of this dick that cums lead,” used on the same album in a different song.

In her piece, Pelly said she asked Glassjaw frontman Daryl Palumbo about those lyrics when she interviewed him in 2015. He stops short of apologizing, or taking ownership of what he so bombastically and earnestly sang in 2000—but he claims he’d never write lyrics like that now.1

Outside of questionable lyrics, being a Glassjaw fan, in 2017, has got to be difficult. The band, founded in 1993, has released only two studio albums—the aforementioned debut, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence, and two years later, following it up with their only major label effort, Worship and Tribute.

It’s not like the band was inactive—I mean, I guess they were for a while. There was a hiatus in the mid 2000s where Palumbo formed a slightly experimental, mostly power pop side project, Head Automatica, a group that pretty much folded in 2006.

The band still performed live, though infrequently, and would hint at the prospect of new music in interviews, all while implying the delays between efforts were due to legal fallout from poorly negotiated deals with both of their former labels, Roadrunner and Warner Brothers.

New music finally arrived in 2011—back to back, in the form of two EPs, Our Color Green, a compilation of limited edition singles the band was selling on its website, and Coloring Book.

 But after that, save for sporadic touring, the band went relatively silent again.

Announced a little over a week ago, and arriving over 15 years after their sophomore album, Glassjaw have, despite their best eefforts, returned with a third full length album, Material Control, an absolutely pummeling and blistering concise set of songs, showing that Palumbo and multi-instrumentalist Justin Beck, both pushing 40, are still just as volatile as they were in their 20s.

Among the things keeping the band from putting together a third record over the course of the last decade plus is, outside of Palumbo’s problems with Crohn’s Disease, the constant tension within the band and frequent line up changes. Glassjaw, as a functioning unit, has cycled through an unfortunate number of players—sometimes five members, sometimes paired down to four, but only Beck and Palumbo seem to last, and are the two ‘members’ of the band credited with writing and performing on Material Control, along side drummer Billy Rymer serving as a session musician for the album. And knowing this fact—that all the instrumentation is done via overdubs, is interesting to take into consideration when you listen to Material Control because of the overall raw, unhinged nature of the album. From start to finish, it sounds like a band in a small room together, playing as hard as they can, as if their very lives depended on it.

Material Control is unrelenting—and I stop short of wanting to ask does it need to be—but we’ll get to this later on. At 12 songs, it barely runs over a half hour in length, with only two tracks arriving at slightly over four minutes. The album as a whole is nearly seamless in its structure, with dissonant collisions between the end of one song and the beginning of another. There is little, if any, breathing room, and Beck and Palumbo seem to thrive in this environment.

The album begins with a three-song suite that doesn’t let up until it absolutely has to, setting the tone for the shape of things to come. Opening with “New White Extremity,” a song that the band shared online in 2015, it careens straight into the first proper single, “Shira,” all before heading into the even more aggressive (if that was even possible) “Citizen.” Each song is full of the Glassjaw trademarks—dissonant, ear splitting guitar riffs, fuzzed out, scuzzy sounding bass chugs, and percussion that could be described as ‘hard hitting,’ but that’d be selling it shore. This all sets the stage for Palumbo’s dramatic, dynamic, and theatrical vocal stylings—probably the most iconic thing about the band. And with 15 years between full-length efforts, he hasn’t lost any of his ability to go from a gorgeous and soaring croon to a blood curdling scream in a split second.

Glassjaw have always had an experimental side to them as well—something they really started to focus on more with Worship and Tribute. Whether it’s the lyrics or the composition and arrangement, things can get weird, and Material Control heads into that territory around the halfway point, with the slow, creeping “Strange Hours,” as well as the explosive and imposing “Pompeii,” which begins with a two-minute percussive intro, “Bastille Day.”

Palumbo and Beck save both the most accessible, as well as the most experimental (or at least strange) until the end. Tapping to a Deftones-esq balance of heavy and surprisingly melodic, “My Conscience Weighs A Ton” winds up being probably one of the best (and catchiest) songs on the record—though for something that involves so much screaming, shredding guitars, and pummeling drums, there are an awful look of hooks to be found throughout. “Conscience” comes to a stop another experimental and instrumental track arrives—this time, it’s the titular track, structured around an echoy drum loop and distorted guitar and bass noodling.

In a sharp contrast to both Worship and Tribute and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence, Material Control does not conclude with a very definitive final statement—maybe calling the album’s closing track “Cut and Run” is a bit of an in-joke for Palumbo and Beck. A little over two minutes in running time, “Cut and Run” is also, much like “Conscience,” one of the album’s more melodious songs—for the most part, anyway—the song’s refrain dips into some more dissonance, while the song’s arranging is probably the most ‘metal’ sound of the set.

Here’s the thing about Glassjaw—as a band, they don’t owe their fans anything. They, like so many other acts that become better known for the time in between albums than the actual albums themselves, didn’t need to, or have to, record and release this record. The mythology surrounding Glassjaw is very similar to that of My Bloody Valentine, in the sense that the longer the silence between albums, the more mystique there is, and more interest and curiosity grows. For awhile, Glassjaw didn’t even have a real website—it was just an e-commerce site selling merchandise.2 The ‘GJ’ logo is, amongst fans, iconic—almost making the Glassjaw a brand rather than a functioning band.

Earlier, I described Material Control as ‘unrelenting.’ That’s the easiest way to describe it. It’s a hard, aggressive, bizarre record that never really lets go of you while you are listening. And in being so unrelenting, it seems as though Palumbo and Beck had something to prove—what, exactly, I am uncertain of. That Glassjaw was still a band? That they could, despite all of the odds, release a third album? That they, despite their age, are still heavy as fuck?

I was always an arm’s length away from Glassjaw. They don’t make it easy for you as a listener. In high school, I blind bought Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence because I saw a copy of it at Hot Topic and it said they were on tour with the Deftones. I was intrigued by it, but also put off by how volatile and explosive it was. Palumbo’s misogynistic lyrics were cringe-worthy in 2000—now they are just flat not unacceptable. In 2002, I bought Worship and Tribute since I considered myself a ‘fan.’ It’s a weird, difficult record with few points of easy access—some of it is hard and heavy, some of it is strange progressive rock, for lack of a better descriptor. I drifted away from music like this by my final year in college, in 2004.

Listening to Material Control for me was out of morbid curiosity and that odd mixture of passing interest and nostalgia—that the 17 year old or 19 year old in me still wants to like this. But the 34 year old I am is way too old for this shit, and I know it. A few months ago, I was staring at the shirts in the band’s web store and was so tempted to grab one of the designs I so coveted when I was a teenager, but the truth is that I know I can’t pull it off at my age, so I let it go.

For the long time, patient Glassjaw fans, congratulations, you got your payoff. I hope a half hour of new music was worth the wait. For the passing fan, or someone who has a purely nostalgic interest in the band, it’s worth a listen, and revisiting your memories of their earlier efforts, but it’s the kind of thing where you know you can’t really stay for very long. For someone who has never heard of Glassjaw until now, and is seeing their name pop up in places like Pitchfork and National Public Radio, this is about as easy of an access point you are going to get into their strange and abrasive world.

1- Palumbo was interviewed by The Guardian and these lyrics came up and Paulmbo takes slightly more ownership of them this time, though still doesn’t say he is legitimately sorry.

2- It seems worth nothing that Beck helped launch Merch Direct.