“Fourteen people lying dead in a bar they called the Kicking Mule…”, sang Elton John on his 1975 classic, “Ticking”, a song recalling the deteriorating mental condition of a teenage boy and the final act which set him off. This song has inspired Austin noise industrial duo Street Sects to title their sophomore LP The Kicking Mule. Its a ballad whose message resonates to the present day as gun violence continues to plague our daily lives and mental health is ignored as a cause for concern, leading to events such as the tragic massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue this past weekend. Singer Leo Ashline has battled with these demons, forming the band in 2013 with his friend multi-instrumentalist Shaun Ringsmuth after a 13 year struggle with addiction. Together the pair have created a project known for their visceral, chainsaw-wielding live shows and dark vignettes on the human condition. On this new album the duo embrace their more melodic side, making this their most “accessible” project to date but retaining all the harsh elements from their previous records. Its the perfect blend of beauty and intensity to produce an ode for the scarred lives we hide in the background.
It begins with a slow brooding sound of hissing samples with a drenched out car radio playing in the background, a buildup in similar fashion to a horror film leading us to the kill. Followed by pulsating synths which silence before we’re plunged into the nightmare that is “269 Soulmates”. Ashline’s vocals place you on a tightrope, initially screaming incoherent lyrics then menacingly taunting you, “Beggar, the city rejects you // its half the matter of income and half the measure of not fitting in”. As vicious drums and a striking guitar play in the background with sampled sounds of engines hurling, Ashline provides some heavenly deliveries detailing the throes of solitude.
“Birch Meadows, 1991” and “Chasing the Vig” follow in similar fashion but hold back on the intense industrial sounds of the opener, instead allowing guitar to play a much more prominent role. In fact, these are the most ambitious or as close to a “pop” sound you’ll ever get from Street Sects, with a clearly heard Ashline recounting a childhood trauma while a soaring guitar line provides a harmony to match. In the latter, the song begins with an uptempo xylophone combating intense noise showing how many different spectrum’s of sound Ringsmuth has up his sleeve. It hearkens back to Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine era, where industrial samples go hand-in-hand with sensuous vocal delivery.
This formula enters new heights in the middle of the album, where they provide some of the best work the duo has put out to date. “Suicide by Cop” begins with a hard hitting drum machine coupled with a screeching car sample and an infectious performance by Ashline. “I used to think you would save my life // … no one’s looking at you now, you’re on your own”, he croons as the song comes to a cynical close where a laugh track is deployed, showing the humor in death.
“Everyone’s at Home Eventually” allows Ashline to shed some light on his personal demons of addiction. Its a beautiful song detailing the loss of direction as a teenager (“When I was young I had no ambition // no lust, no drive, I was living friction”) and the guilt that would ensue after succumbing to drinking (“…wasted half my life, drunk on the ground // and now, I’ll do without”). The guitar leads the way for Street Sects in this section, acting as a tool that the band uses to reach redemption when their seems they’re at the end of the line. “Dials Down the Neon” is the least harsh track on the album, instead allowing synths to dominate the song where they detail a night gone wrong on Austin’s nightlife strip on 6th Street.
The band’s prog influences are utilized on my favorite song, “In for a World of Hurt”, as they channel Brian Eno and Berlin-era Bowie’s romantic isolationism. “Stop reaching out, everyone you love, let’s you down”, snarls Ashline while a sliding guitar and propulsive drum samples batter you over the head. However the band turns to a loud-quiet dynamic where a soothing, descending bass line appears in the mix, allowing a minute of calmness to set in where Ashline croons, “I’m a failure, still between defeats // I was on my way, walking down the street”. The band comes into their own on this song, combining their cut and paste film audio splicing techniques with an eclectic mix of instrumentation. Its a hard knock to the face revealing the sins we all must pay for after treating a loved one so unjustly.
This trial of love theme continues into “Before it was Worn” and “Still Between Lovers”; where Ashline pays homage to Elton John’s fatal line in “Ticking” but updates it to a new location, Dallas. Recalling the sniper shootings by a lone gunmen targeting Dallas policemen which left five officers dead and eleven wounded. The album ends on “The Drifter”, a 4:00 minute synth-ladden dance track where a sinister Ashline becomes the Devil himself, who taunts us to “bury him alive” and reveals his self-centered wishes. As the track begins to ramp up its cut short to silence where you can hear faint sounds of a man walking out of a room, leaving us to ponder the horrors that have been committed. Street Sects have concocted the perfect soundtrack to the terror manifesting in your mind during the waking moments of your life.
The Kicking Mule is out now via The Flenser, listen below…
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