By Kyle Harcott
The passing of guitarist Mat Arluck shortly after the Mercy recording sessions wrapped last autumn was a devastating loss for Sweet Cobra and the Chicago scene in general. It speaks volumes that the band was able to muster together and carry on in the face of such loss, even at Arluck’s behest. Many’s the lesser band who would have crumbled under such a blow. Adding to the sense of bittersweet, 2009 was a profile-raising year for the band, bringing tours alongside Russian Circles and Pelican. Having spent the last few months picking up the pieces and determining to carry on as a trio, the band now releases the much-anticipated Mercy on Black Market Activities. It will break your heart and put a smile on your face as well.
Not only is it a sober and towering monument to Arluck’s memory, it’s also the most ambitious and accessible Sweet Cobra record yet, and contains some absolutely jaw-dropping hooks. And as laden as it is with strong doses of frustration and tragedy – there is also a reluctant sense of hope that shines through in its overall mood. As such, Mercy’s a radical departure from Sweet Cobra’s past; the dynamic finesse shown here was only vaguely hinted at on 2007’s Forever (on tracks like “Spider Scraper”). There’s also the matter of a recurring theme of very sudden endings to many of the songs contained herein – coincidence perhaps, but also sadly fitting to Arluck’s legacy as a beloved member of the Chicago hardcore scene – a powerfully sharp shock that ended far too soon.
“Brother I see that you’re in pain / Believe me, your efforts are not in vain”
‘Brux’ opens with its fists pumping skyward, but underneath the surface, the song is absolutely heartrending. The lyrics, written as a rallying cry to the band’s faltering brother, become a gripping elegy in the wake of his passing. A hard-driven marauding rocker, and surprisingly accessible for Sweet Cobra (but no less powerful for it), the song pummels its way to a massively-riffed coda which stops on a dime. ‘Mercy’ follows immediately; the mirror image of ‘Brux’, the way it opens sounds almost as if they were meant to be played back-to-back, a split second apart. And in that infinitesimal span of time, you hear singer Botchy Vasquez take a breath, and all the magic of the song you’re about to hear is contained in that single split-second act of drawing in life. From there the song just takes off; those soaring harmony vocals layered over those classic overdriven Sweet Cobra guitars.
For its many anthems (the album’s pretty much rife with them front to back), Mercy contains an absolute show-stopper in its finale, ‘Sprague Dawley’: a white-knuckled frenetic stomp that, for all its talk of the placing of curses, climaxes in a frenzied coda that reeks of promise and more on the horizon even in spite of such sorrow.
Mercy is a brave step forward for Sweet Cobra; it’s the sound of a band evolving from the damn-and-blast hardcore of its origins, and progressing into something more powerful in the dynamism that this newfound maturity brings with it. An incredible album.
(Black Market Activities)