Mad Cows and Pig

The Cows are known in the indie rock world for their work ethic. The Minneapolis-based band made its debut on that city's Amphetamine Reptile Records way back in the beginning of 1987, making them, along with label president Tom Hazelmyer's band, Halo of Flies, one of the label's founding bands. Halo of Flies are long gone, but the Cows troop gamely on. Since then, they've cranked out discs at the rate of nearly one a year and toured consistently. They've cruised through Cleveland so often that many people here think they're local.AmRep is known, of course, for its abusively heavy testosterone-fueled underground rock, aka "sports rock," the stuff that helped shape the sound of '90s heavy metal. The Cows share some earmarks with the long list of illustrious bands who've passed through AmRep's roster, which includes devastating anger machines like Unsane, Today Is the Day, Hammerhead, Helmet and briefly, the Melvins, whose lead singer/guitarist Buzz "King Buzzo" Osborne has produced the Cows' latest, their brand-new CD titled "Sorry in Pig Minor."Early on, the Cows fit that dense, stormtrooper mold more closely, although they always had a dark sense of humor that showed up in the lyrics. That's as much in evidence as ever, as shown by song titles like "Life after Beth," "Saliva of the Fittest" and "Felon of Troy," and lyrics like "You wanna die before you're 30/well, that isn't wrong or right/but I suspect you'll be here longer/you'll stick around just out of sight" ("Say Uncle").But over the course of their nine full-length albums, the Cows' music has gotten progressively more offbeat and quirky. This has made the band more distinctive and enjoyable, though certainly there are those who think they've lost their edge. But there were always bands who did that fuming post-hardcore thing better than the Cows and there are even more of them today, former labelmates Unsane and Today Is the Day being two prime examples. The Cows were wise to ease up on their heavy quotient and push their sound into some less well-trod territory.Some of that expansion and experimentation that the band -- vocalist Shannon Selberg, guitarist Thor Eisentrager, bassist Kevin Rutmantis and drummer Freddy Votel -- has undertaken has been, deliberately I'm sure, unsettling. "Sorry" opens with "Cabin Man," a spoken-word track with noisy guitar rock playing in the distant background until the very end when it seems to virtually explode within your ear, petering off into random, clanking sounds. Leading off with a track that focuses on Selberg's words emphasizes his twisted, ironic world view and sets the tone for the album, which isn't afraid to toy with any sound or genre it stumbles across.There are still tunes, like the scrappy, urgent "Death in the Tall Weeds," that show the band's roots as post-punk ragers, though Selberg's thin, biting, prominent voice has little in common with amelodic hardcore grunters. He storms all over the song, at points stretching his voice into a mewling whine. "Saliva of the Fittest" is another tune that's pounding and intense, threatening to break apart in sections. But most of the band's newer material, including most of "Sorry in Pig Minor," assaults a listener in an entirely different way from the normal "sports rock" band. Bludgeoning with volume is not their usual modus operandi. Instead, they irritate; they itch; they cause profound annoyance and dislocation. Where many bands inject sudden contrasting quiet segments into extremely heavy rock to emphasize the sinister, brooding content to their anger, the Cows seem more like some erratic, unfocused lunatic wandering around, distracted by this or that.Selberg's discordant bugle playing is another element that has become more prominent on recent albums, which adds a jolting, surreal note to the band's sound. It crops up on the new album on tracks like "El Shiksa," a clattering, percussive tune with a Latin flavor that sounds half-parodic and half just a little crazy, as Selberg babbles lewd nonsense in a fake accent between bursts on his bugle and blasts on a whistle. It's also prominent on "Felon of Troy," which plays out like a demented parallel-universe jazz number. The band goes on other tangents as well. The bouncy but threatening "Life After Beth" sounds like jug band music from hell; a hidden track at the end of the album is deranged acoustic mountain music suitable for "Deliverance." And "Dear Dad" is an eerie interpretation of modern ambient electronic dance music; it's a vast, cool instrumental track filled with little twinkling sounds.Sorry in Pig Minor will probably just confuse the boys who like music that lets the rage hang out, but it is a treasure for those who miss the intelligent madness of bands such as the early Butthole Surfers. The Cows have remained diligent about putting the insanity back into rock and roll.

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