You’re Listening To CONFESSOR All Wrong. Here’s How To Fix That.
I mean... what’s wrong with you?
And for the record, the answers are “leave them to it”, “sugar and bag then water then milk” and “as soon as possible”.
North Carolina gave us Corrosion of Conformity, Between the Buried and Me, Weedeater and Firehouse. We’ll ignore that last one. Because in a high-school in 1986 a group of North Carolinians got together and started Confessor. Thank fuck for that. I just put Firehouse into YouTube and now I think I have COVID, AIDS and a brain tumor. Hopefully they will cancel out.
I’m not sure what the air does to you down in Raleigh, NC but whatever Scott Jeffreys, Brian Shoaf, Graham Fry, Cary Rowells and Steve Shelton were putting in their music organs was just what we needed. They were listening to a lot of Trouble, King Diamond and Black Sabbath. But the first cassette demo they dropped in 1988 – The Secret – was nothing like any of the above.
In fact, it was nothing like anything anyone had heard before.
Whatever genre they were reinventing when they wrote it (population : just them), it defined their sound. It was way ahead of its time. Death metal had to catch up. I don’t think it ever did. DM took a different path and continued doing what it always had been. And I’m kinda glad for that, because it keeps Confessor unique. We don’t need another Confessor–ish band because the singularity of their sound is irreplicable. That’s what makes it special.
The Secret even has a great mix, especially for a demo in 1988. You can hear everything washing over you and pulling you down into a lugubrious pit of despair. It’s relatively easy for a metal band to engender emotions of brutality or aggression in those who listen to it. But Confessor managed to make the listener question their mortality and drown in melancholic, existential dread. Did I say ‘listener’… More like ‘the Condemned’..
And they were like 18 or something. Fucking hell.
They followed that up in 1989 with the Uncontrolled demo.
This was starting to develop into the sound we would be smothered-in on their first full length release later. The mix is again clear and defined. Without in any way lessening the skill of the engineer I think this in large part due to the actual sound of Confessor songs – the long spaces, the slower pace and the precision of the drums mean the sonic stage is completely filled with sorrowful doom but never entangled. They can slip their misery into our wretched listening holes without the need for lubricating commercialism.
Incidentally, there’s a live video of them performing Uncontrolled live in 1988 ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvUwx11d__k ) and they look so young… Shame there are only like 3 people in the audience who look totally baffled. I don’t think they appreciated what a genre-defining monster they were listening to…
After another demo and a quick line-up change (with Graham leaving and Ivan Colon coming in on guitar), in 1991 they went into Reflection Sound Studios in Charlotte and dropped a record that would burn itself into my consciousness.
Earache poured this vat of progressive, death-doom onto their presses and gave the world what it didn’t deserve but hungrily needed. Here they were, 3 years after The Secret with the refined surgery of emotional despair that would haunt us forever forward. I was living in the sort of place even butt-fuck nowhere would consider the backwater, so this was the first injection of Confessor into my bloodstream. It made me feel dirty and used. Something had just happened to me but I wasn’t sure what. It wasn’t pleasant or beautiful but at the same time it was glorious. And I wanted more.
Describing Confessor is more difficult than stuffing an angry honey badger into a sock. It squirms around, snaps its teeth and at the end of the day there is more honey badger than sock. But I’m going to try. And I’m going to do that by splitting Condemned into three sonic sections.
First of all, the riffs are dissonant, sludgy nastiness. There’s a passing attempt to fit into harmonic minors but the flat-Vs and excoriating intervallic shifts don’t allow a traditional melody. They’re uncomfortable, full of pain and inner darkness. While Slayer evoke imagery of evil and violence, Confessor’s riffs tear up your soul. They’re abrasive but in a completely different way. You experience them. When the record has stopped you still feel numb and damaged. Joking aside, it is so very rare that music can do this to you.
Steve Shelton is a legend amongst drummers; his unique style is the beating heart of Confessor. In an Earache interview he said “I kind of learned how to play drums in Confessor and I really liked how the entire feel of the part can change with a slightly different snare placement or by adding or subtracting a note.” I’m with you on that one. He was writing a rule book that tech-prog drummers have been following ever since. If you replace Steve with any other drummer – no matter how good – Confessor would not have been the same. His compositional skills – and his willingness to be experimental – define the sound. If you are being honest there are few drummers about whom you can say the same. Great drummers, yes. Drummers who play perfectly, yeah. But not ones who twist the music the way Steve Shelton does.
Then there’s Scott’s voice. His high-pitched, mournful lament is layered over Confessor like the wreath at a funeral. Ostensibly pentatonic while brushing shoulders with atonal flat-9s, he evokes an uncontrollable sorrow like no one else. I can think of no other vocalist who performs like Scott. Maybe Mark Antoni from Realm or Trouble’s Eric Wagner. But these are still worlds apart. In a band where everyone is unique it’s only fitting that the singer should be an exclusive artefact of the whole. And like Steve Shelton, other singers could perform Confessor’s material, but only Scott can make you feel uneasy and drowning in despair. His delivery is pitch perfect, haunting and a perfect orator for the eulogy of your soul that is Condemned.
There. Take that Mellivora Capensis. The sock is where you live now.
You can’t hear Condemned on YT or Spotify. I don’t know why. Record label bullshit maybe. The excellent Uncontrolled release of 2012 has all the necessary offerings you need. But if you can find Condemned on CD or vinyl keep it very much to yourself.
After releasing that masterpiece, they appeared on Gods of Grind in 1992 (which has very little actual grind on it!) alongside Carcass, Entombed and Cathedral. This was tied in with a tour featuring the aforementioned bands. The London Astoria gig was shot on professional video but – of course – the material of Confessor was never edited or released. Someone is sat on a fucking gem somewhere. Come on. Let us have it, you bastards!
As a Confessor fan I was left wanting. there was nothing more for years. I could just re-listen to Condemned over and over. I played it to all my friends who with few exceptions could not find traction with the record. Most hated it. I had no idea why. At least back then. Now I realize we were listening to it all wrong.
Then in 2005 my expectant paws got hold of a new release. I could hardly believe my ears.
Unravelled was Confessor back again, at their death-tech-doom-y best. And the production was magnificent. That first snare leaps off the album and suddenly it’s time to fall into the mournful pit once more. And fuck me if it isn’t just perfect in every way.
“Cross the Bar” takes no pause to drown you in the mire of their morbidity. The riffs are Confessor at their best. “Every day… We remember..” ululates Scott in what is – I think – their eulogy for Ivan Colon. It seems every time I write one of these articles I have to mention another musician who has left us. And sadly, Ivan Colon passed away in 2002. He was only 32. I can feel Confessor’s palpable sadness, like they are crying.
Every track is lovingly curated to damn you to your personal hell. The vocals are slightly lower but full of power and passion. And with wonderful backing harmonies. The chorus of “Wigstand” makes your soul recoil in emptiness. “The Downside” pulls it under. And “Sour Times” – my absolute favourite Confessor song – is the Funeral March for the end of the world.
And STILL most people – even metal heads – don’t seem to get it. And now I think I know why.
I’m writing this at 3am in the Isle of Man. I’ve been for a drive in the darkness around the island. This is a beautiful country, but in the dead of night there are isolated hollows and lonely roads that stretch away into gloom. You can feel desolate and removed from the world even though civilization is only a few miles away. On top of the mountains I parked up and listened to the entirety of Unravelled. It made me think about everything I’ve been through, everything that matters to me and everything I’ve failed. “I’m not the person I used to be…” moans Scott. It slices like a knife into my soul.
Out here, alone, in the darkness. That’s how you listen to Confessor. Not with your friends. Not with those you love. Not at times of joy. But secluded. Introverted and unattended.
And if you do the same you’ll learn to love it like I do.
Rest in Peace, Ivan. We are all still listening to what you did.
Spot on! What a gem of an article Si, this is for a gem of a band. Definitely unique and i totally agree nothing like anything anyone had heard before. Confessor was that band i would escape on my own with, post sharing thrash and death metal with my mates. Funny, i also felt not to share Confessor with anyone else. Kept them to myself and ears only, for the fear that they would not understand, appreciate, respect or get them. Cheers Si from Australia, Stephen.