When I think about the name Pupil Slicer, my toes curl with cringe. That name conjures up such a squeamish image. Yet that deep uncomfortableness is something that’s by design when excavating the confronting heaviness this U.K. trio produce. Making the level of noise and chaos you’d expect from twice as many members, without ever breaking a sweat. The absolute worst thing I can say is that they're super unoriginal for mathcore and metalcore these days. Yet 'Mirrors' is an essential listen for extreme music in 2021 due to what it says and in how it says it.
Pupil Slicer exists at this informed intersection between old-school metalcore – think Botch and Converge – and the genres nu-school – think Vein or Wristmeetrazor – and the sweet maddening chaos of a Frontierer or Car Bomb. Throw over this sturdy foundation a rug of grind and blackened influences, booming production, hints of industrial harshness, and you tie the proverbial room together very nicely. It's a dozen songs of anguish pushed to the breaking point; a violent release set to short but sweet song lengths, high-pitched dissonant guitars, wailing shrieks, head-spinning drums, and panicked dissonance. An album that's about the sanctuary heavy music can offer from the cruel world, there's real catharsis here. A purging within the message and delivery of Pupil Slicer's gruesome debut LP.
[caption id="attachment_1109712" align="aligncenter" width="760"] Pupil Slicer, 2021.[/caption]
Simply put, ‘Mirrors’ is fucking terrifying. It's an oppressive soundscape, sometimes just dotted by genuine harrowing screams. Other visceral works that have freaked me out as 'Mirrors' has were Daughter’s infinitely-lauded ‘You Won’t Get What You Want,’ Lingua Ignota’s neoclassical darkwave experience, ‘Caligula,’ and ‘Mother Of Red Light,’ by the severely underrated Meth. It's horrifying because of what it presents, via the personal stories, fears and traumas that it so heavily details. It's a record addressing bullying, self-harm, mental health, suicide ideation, body dysmorphia, and the dissonance and discrimination that comes with someone transitioning and openly becoming their true self.
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Transness is an intrinsic part of this record's personality. Take the bludgeoning 'Panic Defense,' which tackles how in the slimy BS of the U.S. legal system, someone can kill another and claim self-defence by not knowing the deceased was gay or trans. Or 'Villified,' looking at how the unfounded fears towards trans people make them a target for bigots who don't wish to understand them, being vilified for simply existing by bad-faith talking-heads and legitimately harmful legislation. Or the jumpy 'Husk,' a song going instrumentally hard-as-fuck, talking about having to lie about your real self in order to be safe and to survive. A harsh reality for many non-publicly-out trans folks.
Katie Davies delivers skin-crawling, Ghost Bath-like screams that are raw and compelling. In such a competent manner that you'd think she'd done this before, yet this is her first time fronting a metal band like this. Katie is the main driving force, both in her vocals and guitar-playing, and her experience as an autistic trans-woman that are documented across this frenzied LP. Her larynx-shredding vocals and disorientating riffage, where she’s seemingly trying to write the ugliest riffs imaginable, rest up this record’s sleeve. Her guitar playing is like a cheetah: the slightest sound of a twig snapping nearby sets it off. My shit metaphor is to say that her guitar playing is as rapid and skittish as you could ever want from a band of this ilk. Factor in the gritty bass of Luke Fabian (his backing screams filling out the songs solidly) and metronomic drummer Josh Andrews, who has zero chill with these percussive blasts and roller-coaster snare action, this band's got the full package locked and loaded. Then there's the songs.
‘Wounds Upon My Skin’ is wonderfully jarring with its rapid harmonics paired with busy snare rolls that erupt into lurchy hardcore ferocity, and it brings a grin to my face every time. The 76 seconds of ‘Interlocutor’ create one of the album’s most grotesque musical moments, written about depression's twisted hold upon a person, is one of the year's finest heavy cuts. Just in how the vocals and instrumentals contort and distort around one another. The same applies to ‘Save The Dream, Kill Your Friends’, which careens through your head with erratic blast beats and breakdowns, as well as some Code Orange-like glitches. Then there’s the 47-second attack of ‘Stabbing Spiders’, all about self-inflicted pain. An apt title to describe the musical content, it moves faster than an eight-legged freak on your bedroom wall once startled, with guitars, drums and vocals lashing out with serial killer deadliness.
Carson Pace of the most excellent Callous Daoboys rambunctiously features on 'L’appel du Vide' (French for "the call of the void") as it dives into the suffocating abyss of anxiety, and the trio's technical performances reflect this. With a name like a mid-2000s underground core album, ‘Mirrors Are More Fun Than Television' is exquisite in its brutality, but also in its closing, more-melodic instrumental passage. Some might say that this Pupil Slicer album is too intense or that it's too jarring. To which I say: stop being a little bitch. This kind of abrasiveness, this sort of abrasiveness, is exactly why so many come to artists like Pupil Slicer in the first place. Its over-the-top songwriting perfectly reflects the complicated and very real pain that it's trying to understand and address. Besides, this band nails that intensity as strongly as any of the scene's veterans do.
There’s a real atmosphere to ‘Mirrors.' There’s a subtle dynamic present to the off-kilter approach, and while Pupil Slicer leans mostly on the vicious accelerator for much of their debut LP, they know when to space it out. The opening fade-in of 'Martrys' that begins the album is a rare reprieve, like an eerie calm before a roof-yeeting storm. Haunting closer ‘Collective Unconscious’ is also great example, with its reverb-soaked screams, darker timbre, and detuned guitar chords. It’s the most “tame” Pupil Slicer sound, but it ain’t that subdued: the galloping black metal of its middle-eight paired with that melodic tremolo is so arresting, as are the bright guitar melodies that fire like volcanoes soon after, or that final-sprint hardcore passage. ‘Collective Unconscious’ is made all the more disconcerting by the shuddering wails that conclude it as chorus-bathed guitars slowly drift away.
Right at the end of Christopher Nolan's Memento, Guy Pearce says: "We all need mirrors to remind ourselves of who we are." For Pupil Slicer and leading-woman Kaite Davies on 'Mirrors,' it's all about self-reflection, about the growth you've made as a person; where one was versus where they are now. One of the best debut albums of 2021 next to Genesis Owusu's 'Smiling With No Teeth,' every slice of this wild and grinding extreme album is uncompromising and suffocating. And that's why it's so fucking good! There's a beauty in this kind of limit-pushing chaos. What ‘Mirrors’ obviously lacks in its own originality, it more than makes up for with deep introspection, a strong social-justice backbone, violent attitudes, hectic riffs, and some of the most skin-blistering performances and extreme songwriting you'll hear all bloody year outside of that new Blindfolded And Led To The Woods album. Trans rights, always.
L'appel Du Vide
Wounds Upon My Skin
Mirrors Are More Fun Than Television
Save The Dream, Kill Your Friends
'Mirrors' is out now: