Full of Hell and Nothing Find Common Ground on 'When No Birds Sang'

BY Marko DjurdjićPublished Dec 13, 2023

When we say that something is greater than the sum of its parts, it's assumed that the parts themselves are perfectly fine or capable on their own, but are much more effective when combined. But what to call it when the parts are powerful, successful and beloved, all on their own? Therein lies the hefty challenge faced by When No Birds Sang, the first collaborative album between Maryland's Full of Hell and Pennsylvania's Nothing.

While the two bands might seem like they come from disparate sides of the sonic spectrum, their dedication to feedback and noise is all over When No Birds Sang. From the outset, the album is both relentless and merciful, an exercise in transcendent headbanging. It comfortably shares its DNA with a variety of bands from across the "heavy" spectrum (early SWANS, Converge and Eyehategod immediately come to mind), with the image of a coiled double helix acting as an apt metaphor for the contradictory approach undertaken by the album as a whole.

The two bands convened in Ocean City, Maryland, where they wrote and recorded together in person, making the album feel like a true collaboration. This isn't a split or a cross-country tape-trading exercise, but a genuine musical entity that has affectionately been labelled on merch as Full of Nothing. Produced, engineered, mixed and mastered by Fit for an Autopsy's Will Putney, the album is a testament to paradox: heaviness and lightness collide to produce sounds both frightening and serene, sometimes simultaneously. 

While its creative team — made up of Full of Hell's Dylan Walker, Spencer Hazard, Dave Bland, and Sam DiGristine, and Nothing's Domenic Palermo and Doyle Martin — might suggest an overbearing Full of Hell presence, the grinding nature of the former's music is substantially dialled back in favour of the dreamy soundscapes of the latter. And yet, when confronted by Full of Hell's menace, Nothing rear a blunt and ominous head, happily dishing out the ugliness they have long suppressed by embracing and magnifying their more abrasive tendencies. Similarly, Full of Hell's chameleonic approach to collaboration proves to be one of that band's greatest and least celebrated, strengths; although they've made albums with a number of noteworthy artists — including Merzbow, the Body and Primitive Man — they're often admired for their cacophonous, grinding "solo" output, and not their ability to diversify their sound.

There's a palpable melancholy throughout When No Birds Sing, one that's previously been masked by the torrents of fuzz lathering both bands' past output. While Palermo has never shied away from allegorizing his struggles with addiction and mental health, here his voice and lyrics betray a vulnerability that even the most tender Nothing material attempts to shroud.

Miraculously, When No Birds Sang manages to sound both just like — and just unlike — both of its two bands. The crushing intro of album-opener "Rose Tinted World" gives way to lurching instrumentation, mechanical noise and Walker's howls, before a screeching outro delivers us unto the rolling, melodic counterpiece "Like Stars in the Firmament." As Palermo softly coos "I don't wanna die," repeating it several times, sustained notes crescendo and dissipate beneath him. This dedication to vulnerability and emotional exposure is never presented as weakness. In fact, the album's greatest strength is its ability to embrace its tender insecurities. 

"Like Stars in the Firmament" is followed by "Forever Well," which begins with rolling bass over extended atmospheric tones, before morphing into a black metal-tinged bruiser propelled by Walker's tormented screams and Palermo's ghostly background vocals. "Forever Blue," a wholly ambient track, follows, before the swirling, Palermo-led title track floats through in all its distorted, reverb-drenched glory.

This wave-like approach to the sequencing — cacophony giving way to respite, then right back again — lends When No Birds Sang a necessary balance, but it also becomes a bit too predictable. Whenever we hear a part that's more Full of Hell, we know we're about to get one that's more Nothing. Noise, calm, repeat ad infinitum. It's also uninspiring to hear three songs in a row that all start with almost identical ambient textures ("Forever Well," "Wild Blue," and the title track), particularly when the entire album is only six songs long. While When No Birds Sang starts with a bang, it conforms too quickly to its own self-imposed patterns. Fortunately, the album's monolithic finale, "Spend the Grace", is one of 2023's best songs in any genre, by any performer, at any length (roses and thorns…roses and thorns…).

"Spend the Grace" is perfect: after a scraping, Sonic Youth-inspired intro, a sludgy bridge leads to soaring white noise and pounding drums. The background becomes oversaturated with tremolo-picked guitars that stop suddenly every few seconds as the strings are bent into drifting squeals. The song's towering climax features more of those atonal bends and Walker's chilling cries, and when he sings the final words on the album — "Smothered by smoke / Swan dive / Oblivion" — your spine will curl. As the wave recedes one last time, a soft white noise rustles and fades into Walker's promised end: oblivion.

As a genre-defying work, When No Birds Sang is the perfect middle ground for two bands who relentlessly battle against the lazy pigeonholing of scenesters and critics. Grindgaze? Shoecore? These labels don't matter when the music is this punishing, sincere and sublime. This is an album of bliss and anger, violence and peace, and while the collaboration isn't always as fruitful as some of its tracks promise, the inclusion of "Spend the Grace" gives hope that this isn't the last we'll hear from Full of Nothing.
(Closed Casket Activities)

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