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Celestial Bodies

Inside the thinking, feeling, breathing metal of Maggot Brain

by Joe D. Michon-Huneau on November 6, 2013 · 1 comment


My first impression of Ryan Slowey was that of a solemn figure leaning over a mixer, obscured by shadows beside the bar at Valentine’s. He’s lanky and serious, has a scraggly beard, a Dalí tattoo. He’s run the soundboard for many an Albany band, and is singlehandedly recording singer-songwriter Matt Durfee’s long-awaited first album, Little World, in his bedroom studio, cables striping the floor. It’s the same place where he meticulously engineered Stop and Breathe, the new record from his metal band Maggot Brain, winners of this year’s Metroland Best Of.

The guitarist is unassuming, shy, a wry smile on his face when at a lack for words, but Slowey defies first impressions. When not gorging on Pantera and Hendrix, he prefers lighter fare, Nick Drake or Townes Van Zandt. But put that man on stage—or get him talking about music—and you might not realize it’s him.

“Hardcore gets a bad rap,” he says, but Maggot Brain are geared to change that perception. “When you’re playing for a room full of people who are into metal,” Slowey continues, “it’s not terribly hard, if you’re a tight, heavy band, to get those people into it, but we’ve got people who are all over the map [scene-wise]. I’m real grateful for that. It’s really important to me that people just respect it as music.”

One night over the summer, I happened upon Slowey listening to the test pressing of Stop and Breathe on vinyl. His guitars were propped up around the living room, against a wall, an amplifier. Two smallish speakers were strung to a turntable. Guitar notes loomed; voices—vocalist Mike Hait’s in the forefront—roared in triplicate; what little bass the speakers could handle was causing them to rumble in place. “This is your new stuff?” I asked. A quiet affirmation.

Oppenheimer's ghost: (l-r) Sean Fortune, Ryan Slowey, Jared Krak and Mike Hait of Maggot Brain. Photo by Becky Nialsen.

Stop and Breathe is the first album to be released by local record label/store Fuzz Records. The album art aptly features a macro lens close-up of a glistening maggot eating its way out of a pile of dark, rain-soaked beef, tossed atop photographer Mike Mullin’s roof days prior to the shoot—and it’s beautiful, despite the description. Powerfully concise, Stop and Breathe is condensed into seven complex tracks, and Fuzz’s Josh Cotrona and August Rosa were quick to recognize Maggot Brain’s breadth.

The vinyl release for Stop and Breathe was lively and loud, boasting double headliners Kowloon Walled City and Zozobra at Valentine’s, both floors of which are frequent homes to Maggot Brain’s perpetually crowded concerts. Black T-shirts, shoulder-length hair, scrubby beards and half-empty beers filled the room the night of the release. Their next event, also at Valentine’s, will be a massive, two-floor, 12-band festival on Nov. 30 they’ve dubbed No Pepper Fest, a tribute to the bold warning sprayed across the stage they’ve haunted most.

With poise and focus, Slowey smashed his pick into his strings, the bottom of his guitar peeling from his figure with each hit. Stooped over his instrument, he deftly plucked out monstrous wails. Hait, microphone clutched in his tattooed fingers, screamed low, violently, his veins protruding. Sweat-darkened hair smeared across his face and neck; his growl mountainous, sharp, full of gravel. Beside him, the powerhouse rhythm section nearly punched holes in the stage floor, bassist Sean Fortune stomping and bowing over his machine, his strings grumbling in precise time with Jared Krak’s propulsive twin bass drums.

Raw and brooding, Stop and Breathe changes pace like the plot twists in Breaking Bad. The outro of punisher “Silence” bleeds into the gargantuan “Celestial Bodies,” the album’s centerpiece, spiraling midway from a pulsing low-string bender into My Bloody Valentine-modulation; its mesmerizing instrumentals could’ve been from a lost session of Tool’s Lateralus. Boisterous drums pummel through the thick bass of “Clearing,” Hait, Slowey and Fortune’s varied howls bouncing between headphones. And the album opens with Krak’s richly layered throat singing, a skill he learned in about three hours—a feat that sometimes takes dedicated monks years to perfect. The Tibetan mantra they invoke, Om Mani Padme Hum, is similarly layered in meaning: generosity purifying ego, patience purifying desire, diligence purifying ignorance.

The band ran into legal trouble due to the album’s use of a J. Robert Oppenheimer sample, a repentance for the man’s creation of the atom bomb, that leads into album closer “The Great Destroyer.” They had to pony up to NBCUniversal before the album was allowed to be pressed. Here, more references to Eastern religion: Vishnu, changing forms, proclaims, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Like many an Albany outfit, Maggot Brain met and formed in the music wing of the College of Saint Rose. Slowey was guitarist for Clitorture, working on his sonic capstone in a St. Rose studio, when he met Jared Krak—tall and good-natured with a copper mustache—who introduced him to the rest of the band.

“He walked into the studio while I was tracking guitar,” says Slowey of his first encounter with Krak. “I had never met him before and he was just like, ‘This is cool, you wanna play in a band?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know who the fuck you are.’ I kind of blew him off.” Initial iciness aside, the two have remained friends for the better part of 10 years. Krak currently takes on extracurricular drumming duty in Aggressive Response, who will open for Murphy’s Law on Nov. 27 at Bogie’s.

A few years after being introduced to Sean Fortune—dressed as Bea Arthur at a Halloween show—Slowey and Krak were asked to contribute to an instrumental record Fortune composed based on Dante’s Inferno in 2008. These sessions were a precursor to the genesis of Maggot Brain, procuring the name thereafter from Funkadelic’s catalogue.

Fortune is a man of calm presence; his straightforward talk, reserved in tone, keeps his wild head of hair and enthusiasm for Snoop Dogg in check—the latter of which benefits his contribution to hip-hop entourage Goldtooth. He also plays in cover band Mister Toad’s Wild Ride, bolstering the mood of many a Valentine’s happy hour.

In need of vocals, the trio approached Mike Hait, a withdrawn, enigmatic character with perhaps the most appropriate of the band’s last-name homonyms. He’s a licensed massage therapist whose long hair hides the uppermost of his many tattoos. Mild and soft-spoken, he seems almost permanently lost in thought. Contrast this with the guttural howls he pours into his clamped microphone.

Each band member seems to have this distinct difference between their quiet, working lives and their musical lives. Krak works at the Center for Disability Services. Fortune is, in his words, a government worker for the state of New York. And Slowey works at Albany Public Library. Contrast that with the harrowing tonal screeds convulsing in their monitors, with their shared appreciation of Sabbath and Zeppelin, Neurosis and Pig Destroyer.

Slowey, the driving force behind the songwriting, refuses to present the band with an unpolished riff. “Cancer,” an ominous, cave-dwelling soundscape, was the only song Slowey composed entirely—a song that alludes to the internalized loneliness of cancer diagnosis, something he and his mother each had to endure, simultaneously yet separately, during the early stages of Maggot Brain’s formation in 2009. Slowey is now four years cancer-free, a triumph that can be heard in the exuberance with which he talks about his music. “It’s all very . . . personal,” says Slowey of the catharsis the band finds together. “If we all didn’t do this we would all be, in some way, shittier on a day-to-day basis.”

Hait, however, seems wary to reveal when pressed about lyrical content. Broaching the subject of “Celestial Bodies,” all he can muster is that it’s about someone in his life, his past—though the lyrics themselves speak of sex: allusions to “limbs [as] grape vines;” they speak of love: “The twinkling points in your eyes explode/As you peer into me.” His bandmates joke that it’s their love song, Hait squirming uncomfortably at this notion. “Can’t you feel my sentiment?” the song pries. Yes, we can. “Can’t you feel my thoughts bent on you?” Yes, with magnitude. The word “ramus” juts out—a quick Google search explains that it’s a bone of the pelvis. Hait doesn’t need to dissect his lyrics—he knows who the songs are for and he’s revealed plenty already. They all have.