Album Review

Meat Belt – Into The Settling Sun

By Jay Armstrong

“A strange, inexplicable malaise is spreading throughout Earthsea. Magic is losing its power; songs are being forgotten; people and animals are sickening or going mad.” – The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

Into the Settling Sun opens textural, layered, danceable. “Gimme A Break” sets the mood of comfortable shoes on an overcast day. Meat Belt put a shine to self-deprecating, nihilistic, quasi-optimistic lyrics—the glue which will solidify the entire album which follows together; the glue which has stuck us to their side since moment one. If the concept of The Minutemen on Valium sounds exciting; boy oh boy are you in for it on this one.

Constant releases with shoulder shrugged passivity in caring whether anyone takes notice, the thought of who this album is for seems not to register in the slightest for Meat Belt. For myself, on the other hand, I consider the question often. Not only with this band but with all the bands too boldly momentous for the moment and ears in which their sound reaches. This is a problem worth addressing even if it is all but pointless. Why are the bands who do not sell us on hype failing to build hype residually? Do bands really have to focus the majority of their energy on propagandizing themselves via the internet in order to make a difference?

Individuality is beautiful. Finding yourself; defining yourself; important endeavors, all of them. But where the hell are we at as a collective? The idea that one city or (eck!) scene ever guided the ship as a beacon along the way has always been swaddled by nauseous meaning pontificated by people who dig three records from the same zip code and believe it representative of something profound. One should always remain wary of words surrounding concepts such as fate or idols, especially when rooted in meaning sought and found in art. Sure the idea that music has some predictable sensed purpose gives our existential lives a glimmering religious sparkle. Yet the soil has always been rich with possibilities to do so. Doubly this goes for Austin and yet why does each band not backboned by safe marketable nothingness and blase’ bound sound structures seem an island?

The lineups at shows appear cohesive enough, even now on the other side of our exile from one another—or in between exiles with the way things are shaping up again—it is small fragmented camps going off for a single band while being politely removed from the rest which remains front and center of the experience regardless of who plays where. This is not what was in mind when the recommendation came down the line for social distancing. Our split grows dramatically with time. Are we just over what live shows have to offer us in the realm of magnetic cohesion? Has failing to even politely feign alignment with others not walking or talking in exactly the same way as we do become more important than seeing those lines blurred for a few hours as a reminder of how in certain respects we are all in this together. Certainly, a certain amount of intolerance for outsiders from the typical genre factions is expected (metal/punk/psychedelic come immediately to mind with their holier-than-thou posture clung tightly by their extreme loyalists). Every venue has been stacking their bills with bands worth getting lifted by; apparently, if it isn’t one of the already established giants in town the audience only cares to watch on with arms practically crossed. I have found myself rather heartbroken watching it happen.

If only the issue were the in-person interactions it would be one thing; online it is even worse. Marketing teams have turned tastes against the fans as they exploit algorithms in our target marketed hell. All of that wide-eyed seekers potential of beginning the late teens/early twenties branching out down the path of self-discovery with a blossoming appreciation for the fresh rooted substantial has been hijacked by parasitic capitalism. Intellectual growth spurt steps leading to the external tangible communities in which they find their sense of belonging are all but uncontrollably misguided back into the belly of the beast. This is what I am hearing across the country. I pray to whoever that those whose opinions I trust are falsely reading the situation. We watch friends recommending music to friends getting ignored or eye-rolled; everyone now a critic before even giving something unfamiliar a chance. There is a mountain of doubt and fear about opening the door to let the new in; how tragic it is to have this moment where we could use a bond between strangers be when our chosen alienation ramps up rather than down.

We seem to have run aground. Neither shipwrecked nor paradise lost, it feels as though art has found itself sand stuck as the high tide of the collectively inspired moon-shifted to low. There is a pulse. We are still on our feet. Where though is the salvation? We need the wind-driving spirit. We need the fire-raged lungs in refusal of being marginalized screaming along to a newly favorited song. Those looking to point fingers might delude themselves believing the best we have to lean on is in an ill imagined lack of quality to what we are receiving. I argue we should be pointing fingers at ourselves. Music over the last ten years has been at a perpetual point of greatness that somehow feels like watching a reimagined version of The Road Warrior where instead of ripped wild dust being strewn across the Australian desert, we have our hero stuck spinning their wheels through the Swamp of Sadness. The state of music remains consistently great in all genres. So where is the problem and why are we stuck here on our islands?

We gotta look no further than to Jon Chamberlain and Nate Ulmer via Meat Belt for where this issue continually shows its face. Every album they put out substantiates validity worthy of building community alliances around. My windows open, volume to eleven, I press play and feel the record scream into a vacuum. There have been periods of time where art has not risen to the occasion of society’s needs. We are not living in one of them. Meat Belt speak to the cynical malaise the way Mr. Rodgers spoke to children. Consistently great albums with just enough growth to make those already into them proud they stuck around.

I scratch my head when I come across reviews of their music. “Between the Meat Puppets-esque cover art and the no-frills production, Meat Belt sound like a lost SST act on “Allowed to Live Today,” all disjointed guitars and yapping vocals and violent drums. Compelling, disquieting and unflinching, “Allowed to Live Today” is Austin art punk at its unholy finest.” (Nick HanoverOVRLD Aug, 2020) “Unyielding in its nihilistic snarl from the outset, Meat Belt’s sophomore offering passes the Memphis garage punk smell test and would make departed revivalist James Lindsey proud. On the cutting board, 10 fresh slabs marbled with warbling post-punk and seasoned with the essence of noise rock. A savory treat for the ears that falls off the bone….” (Greg StittAustin Chronicle Sept. 2020). “Harsh Delivery’ is the center mark on a pendulum swinging album whose pivot point is some strange unknowable stream of consciousness sewn by the hands of two masters. Meat Belt might be stripped down, energy first, rock n roll but underneath it all is a strange John Caleion buzzing one has but to lean in, eyes closed, to take note of. All unnecessary descriptors aside, “Harsh Delivery” is a damn fine song by some damn fine people.” (Jay ArmstrongAnon Magazine – Our 100 Favorite Songs of 2020). So far Maximum Rock N Roll has declined to feature Meat Belt which is not surprising since they declined to hire me after a few beautiful drunk siloloquoys got sent their way about my being the greatest writer since the printing press and how much they would have lost their way without me. Nothing on Meat Belt? I rest my case. Point being. This band is fucking great and yet it is goddamn crickets outside of three of the four sources we already know would be about noise this solid. For a long time it seemed a garbage excuse hearing bands say it was impossible to make it now without hiring a company to work their social media and press awareness. Do you not break down sobbing at the possibility of that being true?

This leads me to believe it is not the bands letting us down but the audience. Is this where having all of existence comparably available at hand brought us to? Minds so numbed by the avoidance of boredom that the life-saving spells fall on deaf ears who now refuse to believe magic is real. There is more to life than being entertained; guess most of these idiots refuse to believe it. Somewhere between The Farthest Shore and Tehanu my thoughts are clearly drawn to Ursula K. Le Guin. By lack of belief in power, the object adorning it loses what it once possessed. Have we truly forgotten our salvation? Can the energy of you and I affect the current of change? We cannot throw in the towel can we? Will it matter if we don’t?

As the factory farm herd of drooling lobotomies line up to pay a month’s rent for weekend festivals, I fear the end is nigh. I am not attacking electronic music or the fans of it. I am not attacking festivals or those who define their personality by them—the world is dark and defeating enough, I feel a wholesome tingle in knowing that everyone deserves to feel good about something; doubly I feel a tingle knowing that boring generic people have a space to exist so as to not exist in the same space as I do, if I ever looked to my left while watching The Spits and saw a polo shirt and a self-proclaimed “influencer” (vomits in mouth) singing along I would probably hang myself—so to that end I find what they are about fantastic. I am though attacking the idea that lifeless prerecorded music animated through seizure pulses of light and visual stimulation qualifies as experiencing life is a damn fine facade to hide the truth that humanity is psychologically stunting their own growth in being so afraid of genuine experiences that we must hide behind the third wall of predictability and screens. No one seems to know how to FEEL anymore. Hell, even our hormone blinded experience of dating has become a lack of commitment toe in a thousand waters, little-give lotta-take, experience. When was the last emotional outburst by any collective that wasn’t based on outrage? I’m all for protesting one’s beliefs when you see something wrong; speaking out against injustice, standing beside victims, standing against intolerant power; these are noble endeavors. Have we forgotten there are better reasons to feel alive? Those on the creative side of the line are holding their end up, so few are meeting them in the middle. It was like this before we hit the skids with Covid; if only that could be scapegoated to calm these thoughts. Tell me you got wild at any of the last three SXSW’s and I probably already recognize your face from it. How did everyone get so bored and boring?

Jon Chamberlain, even with having a family while shifting his focus to photography and running his gallery, stays the course by creating music for the sake of creating music. Pouring out album after album just to know it exists. A factor to this music not to be overlooked. Without being pretentious, Chamberlain puts his lyrical finger to the chest of our existence and spouts off for the hell of it. The same goes for Nate Ulmer. It is difficult to understand how two creatives keep their heads down without playing up their own egos or subscribing to the social mores of belonging. Meat Belt does it again and again, boldly defining once more what the best artists have always represented; individuality strong enough to collectively bond an entire city/moment/movement to swell warmly up in response to it. I wish there was a wave of teenage bands out right now pushing things to the point that Into the Settling Sun were dead upon arrival, merely victims of a past sound being moved beyond. What I wouldn’t give for all of us to be forced to the back by the next generation long past due to replace all of these ugly dinosaurs still defining what current music stands for. I want to become the old man screaming about things I do not understand. Where are the things I do not understand? Where are the artists baffling me by their popularity? Where are the new idols? Who shall be your gods?

To remain so powerfully relevant for so long must have been a marketing miracle.  Furlinghetti only had fifteen years of discoursing power through City Lights Books. Gertrude Stein had ten. Maybe rock n roll’s seventy-year run was more than anyone could have hoped to sustain. I do not believe that theory. I cannot deny it either. Meat Belt merely draws my focus to the disease. I am not saying this is the band we should be force-feeding to our friends whose “music defines me” pontifications amount to listening to similar artists on Spotify as though it constitutes any inkling of branching out. I am saying, why the hell are people not being that way about SOME bands. Are we oversaturated with greatness? Are we so lacking our own personalities that the bands we love, love, love have to be squeezed secretly to our hearts in hopes of having SOMETHING to uniquely define us? Is the party truly over?

Even in better years when the scales were balanced between substantial and generic Meat Belt would have reminded us that pop and bubblegum bands have always sold more records this side of Elvis and The Beatles but it is the ones who shake at that tree with gained out guitars and cymbal smashed ideas who were the sails steering the ship. That is what made other bands hate the New York Dolls with such bitterness; while generic dudes spent their entire lives skipping out on parties to practice scales and look for patterns in what the Hit Parader were going to be hyping next; The Dolls played loud with disaffected arrogance about the things cardboard people who believe art can be learned from a book could never understand and the audience immediately got it. Where is the audience now? Where are the people who value living in the moment rather than watching it? Where are the people who would rather be a part of building their community rather than turn their back on it? I miss the days where writing in a vacuum felt like it was because all those with tastes would rather just listen to an album than read what some dude had to say about it. Maybe that is still the case and I am dramatically unaware of my alarmist woe-is-me ridiculousness. With all sincerity, I hope you are laughing at this negativity rather than relating to it.

Anyway, this record rules. Meat Belt are not the only great band around but they, like the others, are offensively off the radar. Of course you dig this record but are you sharing it to make sure bands like this don’t feel defeated and give up? Are you?

“Once, when they were young, they helped each other at a time of darkness and danger and shared an adventure like no other. Now they must join forces again, to help another in need — the physically and emotionally scarred child whose own destiny has yet to be revealed.” – Synopsis for Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin

Meat Belt – Bandcamp | Spotify