Mixed Media Slang: Sunk Loto – Between Birth & Death (2003)

Truer than most people care to admit, the perceived “peak” in a bands career has more to do with marketing and a constructed narrative than with the artist’s actual work or talent level. Through out their short lived history, Australian band Sunk Loto were both beneficiaries and victims of this record label ruse. Backed by Sony music, the youthful band managed to gain a large following and the attention of many of the big players within the nu metal scene. But as the musical climate changed in the new millennium, so did the luck of the band. With their final major release, 2003’s Between Birth & Death, the band  dropped arguably the finest metal album in Australian history – a release which could and should of changed the face of Australian music, if anyone (including their record label) bothered to listen.

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The band was formed by guitarist Luke McDonald and the Brown brothers (vocalist Jason and drummer Dane) in 1997. Playing under the name Messiah, local crowds were stunned with the maturity of the song arrangements coming from a band whose oldest member was a mere 14 years old (Dane was only 11 at the time). With bassist Sean Van Gennip joining the band shortly after, the band recorded a self titled EP that resulted in them being picked for the 1998 Vans Warped Tour, impressing the organizers as well as fellow touring bands, Pennywise & Deftones. With green on their mind, Sony records snapped up the band (who had by then changed their name to Sunk Loto) signing them to satellite label Epic for their stunning 1999 debut EP Society Anxiety.

Released on the 29th of November 1999, Society Anxiety rode the commercial waves created by Korn’s Follow the Leader and Limp Bizkit’s Significant Others over saturated sound that was flooding rock radio. The five track EP was not only a showcase of well crafted tracks and grooves, more importantly it showed a level of potential unmatched by any band coming out of Australia at the time. Apart from the talent oozing out of their pores like pimples on their adolescent faces, the band and label had the foresight to enlist Phil McKeller – a producer whose magic studio fingers could squeeze as much of this audio aptitude from the young group as possible.

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The marriage between the producer and the artist is far too important to be left to chance and having worked with some of the finest alternative acts in the country, from Silverchair to Frenzal Rhomb – Sydney based producer McKeller was the mature head that the band needed. Thoughout the EP, it is clear that McDonald benefited most from McKeller’s studio tweaks. The distorted effect on the guitars during in the midsection of opening track ‘Vinegar Stroke’ and ‘Porcelain Buddah’  take the songs to a new levels of confidence the band could not achieve themselves on their earlier demos. Additionally, the band as a whole became a more structured and mature outfit under his watchful eye with tracks like the Deftone-eske ‘Lift’ and the beautifully sombre Submission sounding as fresh today as they did 16 years ago.

Not original by any means, the Society Anxiety EP pays homage to its inspirations –  elements of both Evil Empire era RATM and Deftones Around the Fur are heavily evident both musically and sonically throughout the release –  a fact that can be forgiven (and at times praised) due to the bands age. Any band worth their salt will often return to work with the same producer album after album simply because they know what is required from each of them and how they can get the best out of each other. Sunk Loto made sure McKeller was behind the boards for both the competent but disappointing full length Big Picture Lies (which had the honor of being mixed by Appetite for Destruction’s Michael Barbiero) and their farewell masterpiece Between Birth & Death.

 At the turn of the millennium, the band (and nuMetal) were at their commercial peaks. Opening to packed houses for nearly every major international alternative act to head to Australia during the period (Adam Cox also briefly joined the band’s live line-up as their DJ, Sampler and Keyboardist), the band’s success drew as many fans as it did haters amongst their native country. With a history of tall poppy syndrome, Australia is a country filled with venomous, poisonous people – shithouse slogans such as “give ‘em a fair go” and the ‘Aussie battler’ are celebrated and plastered around the media like southern cross tattoos on racists . Most Australians will tell you that a ‘tall poppy’ is someone who has an inflated sense of self worth but expats and migrants are quick to argue that Australians are just  fundamentally reluctant to offer praise for a job well done. Whether or not the unwanted criticism of the band (and the genre) impacted the band, they disappeared off the face of the music scene for three long years before returning a different and much darker band.

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Gone are the past flirtations with hip hop beats and urban soundscapes, Between Birth and Death takes the bands sound down to a caustic and malevolent place. Whether consciously or subconsciously – Sunk Loto were consumed, driven to move away from the nuMetal accessible sound  they had created for themselves on the past releases. The release is an unpleasant listening experience – ugly and tortured and at times claustrophobic. However, what makes BB&D such a triumph is the expert way in which the album was molded. The album has a certain flow; a natural progression from song-to-song which is bound to keep the listener’s attention throughout.

Starting with a drum patten reminiscent of Sepultura’s ‘Territory’, propulsive opener ‘5 Years of silence’ encapsulates this musical change – trading off between dissonant and math-inflected hardcore and black metal influenced vocal screams.Vile and venomous like his namesake snake, Brown spits either at the listener  from the jumpoff; “you’re blinded by greed, you’ve got the liar disease,I think emotional blackmail is fair….I think a violent disease would be fair”. Like pouring too much sugar in Daniel Johnston’s kool aid – the majority of the tracks are as musically tense and on edge as Brown’s unhinged vocals.

The rhythm section of Dane Brown and Van Gennip could not provide a better percussive bed for McDonald’s gritty but clarity enriched strings. Each instrument has been played and layered with surgical precision, with no one sound ever cancelling out another. ‘Fall Apart’ and the schizophrenic ‘Help’ are marinated in Dane’s dissonant rhythms and Mcdonald’s inventive guitar angularity.  Unorthodox riffs and sounds that sometimes seem random and unorganized, but still manage to create a perfect plane for Jason to track his vocals on.  When a track is starting to feel one-dimensional, the band  include a contemplative passage (again highlighted in ‘Help’) or technical section to break up the barrage of aggression.

Brown’s lyrics are steeped in  desolate anguish, the theme of dying alone is constantly repeated through the entire album –  no doubt inspired by the loss of a close friend to a drug overdose. Whilst the earlier work took more than a page from Jon Davis and Chino Moreno, Brown clearly channels Great Southern Trendkill era Phil Anselmo  throughout Between Birth & Death. ‘Erased’ could be seen as the bastard stepson of Pantera’s War Nerve with McDonald’s Dimebag inspired groove and Browns guttural lyrics “Choking, feels like I’m choking on the shit of the world, Suffocated, we’re suffocating in the mess we’ve made”. Jason gives his most diverse performance of his career on this recording, from bellowing screams to beautiful melodies, he drags the listener along as he journeys the valleys of heartbreak and tragedy.

While many of the tracks are an exercise in exorcising personal demons, there is an element of biting social commentary throughout BB&D. ‘Everything Everyway’ takes aim at the follies of pop culture, which is ironic due to it being the most commercially accessible song on the album – and the lead single. Additionally, tucked in towards the back of the release, ‘Public Imagery’ is dripping in Dead Kennedys inspired dysphoria. Sounding like a metalcore offspring of Pantera and System of A Down, the utter despair towards humanity is poetically discharged with a sadistic soundscape and Brown’s downhearted “only in a world so shallow and shameless would we televise a fucking war”. More poignantly, whilst Brown’s refrain of “Public imagery manipulates society when will people see were being told what to hear please just be a phase in time” relates to the media’s influence in regards to public perceptions during the ongoing War on Terror – it could also chronicle the role record labels have in the promotion and success of artists, regardless of their musical talent.

With such a dark, complex and uncommercial piece of art on their hands, Sony music were reluctant to promote and market the album in the same way of Society Anxiety or BPL. With the popularity of nuMetal also starting to wane, the support slots on big name international acts touring Australia also began to dry up. Sean Van Gennip left the group shortly after the release and was replaced quickly by Rob Kaay for the tour cycle, who was quick to see the change in fortune for the band. “I think that unlike places like Europe and America that support and love heavy music, the Australian music industry turns a blind eye to real metal music and instead is more worried about pretentious sweater scarf-wearing indie music or the latest [Australian] idol winner” noted Kaay in an interview shortly before the band was ousted from Sony BMG’s prodigious ranks.

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Without a label and bitter towards the industry, at the request of McDonald – the band flirted with taking their sound down an even darker path. According to Kaay “the guys made me learn a bunch of death-metal songs with every intention of recording a new album, but things suddenly ended before we got to record it”. The brothers Brown and Kaay had a meeting together in May 2007 and decided to work together on a new project without Luke McDonald . The only true remnant of the final days of Sunk Loto is a demo of the song ‘Kill Your Soul’ (a couple of other songs were said to have been put to tape but have yet to see the light of day) –  recorded by Forrester Savell in a tiny studio on the Gold Coast and highlighted the death metal (and almost Cannibal Corpse vocals style) direction the band was heading in.

McDonald seemingly dropped of the musical radar after the demise of the group, turning up for a brief stint with Gold Coast band Miacarla before again disappearing from the scene. The other three formed a short lived band The Flood, The Flood before going their separate ways. The Brown brothers joined forces with members of Gold Coast band Limp to give birth to one of the worst named bands in the history of music – Electric Horse. Releasing one of the best EP’s of 2010 with Translations – an amazing mix of hard rock and progressive metal jams, many thought the future for the band would be..gulp.. ‘horsesum’. But that belief was quickly deaded by the release of their debut full length Venomous in 2013 , which deserted their growing fanbase by discharging a lukewarm mix of country influenced pub rock.

With the musical climate in Australia warming up to uncommercial metal acts in recent years (evident in the long term success of groups like Parkway Drive) one can wonder how Between Birth & Death would be received if it was released and properly marketed today. But as a farewell offering, it is a masterpiece and takes the band to such a creative high it is somewhat appropriate the band disbanded shortly after. An album that drips with ingenuity, art, and uncompromising sound, Between Birth & Death a milestone in Australian music and some of the finest audio your ears will ever hear – from the womb to the tomb.

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