From the Obelisk.ne
A little while back, guitarist Scott O’Dowd of Allston, Massachusetts, rockers Cortez hit me up for a band bio. The record, self-titled, came out on Bilocation just this very week, and of course, I said I was glad to write up a history of the band. I remember when they put out their 2007 Thunder in a Forgotten Town EP on Buzzville, and we’d played shows together periodically over the years, so as Cortez began to really take shape as a band – and especially after vocalist Matt Harrington came aboard in 2009 – it was exciting to think of their first album finally coming out. Songs like “Johnny,” “Until We Die” and the C.O.C.-esque riffing of “Monolith” were mainstays of their live set, and the demo they cut of that material was stellar. We’d talked about maybe doing a release via The Maple Forum on CD before I decided to draw back on that side of the site, and as I listen now to Cortez – a massive gatefold 2LP release with cover art by Alexander von Wieding that includes that 2009 demo as side D – I really do think it’s for the best that it ended up as a record. While my general preference is for shorter releases that, like a short story, can be absorbed in a single sitting, Cortez simply have more ground to cover. Ostensibly, this is their full-length debut, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a follow-up to the EP, one that’s nearly five years in the making and one that has to do the work of establishing Cortez not only as a fresh act in Boston’s admirable heavy rock scene, but also a band who’ve put that half-decade since their last offering to good use in terms of development and creative personality. That’s a lot to ask of a 40-minute album, or even a 50-minute album. Cortez’s Cortez, including the demo, tops out at 75 minutes, and that proves to be more than enough time to get the job done.
In that span, all four members – O’Dowd, Harrington, bassist Jay Furlo and drummer Jeremy Hemond – distinguish themselves, but most importantly, Cortez shines as a unit, and whether it’s the melodic complexity of a track like “Wormwood” or the doomed atmospheric reveling accomplished by the later “Satan,” their songwriting sensibility is never lost. There’s a clear allegiance to riff rock – that’s not to say “stoner rock,” though I think that’s part of their scope as well – but Harrington soulfully belts out these tracks in a manner that clearly indicates that though he’s a more than capable frontman, it’s not about any single person in the band, but about the group working together toward a shared whole. Solos are taken, to be sure – O’Dowd is a classy player and that shines through no matter how fuzzed out the material gets – but one gets no sense of ego bleeding through Cortez’s straightforward arrangements. With a crisp New Alliance Audio production and mix from Ethan Dussault, the songs prove to be their own greatest strength, and it’s not just the riff, or the bassline (though Furlo kills it in the rhythm section with Hemond, crafting the stomp that makes the back end of second track “All Hail” so effective), or the drums or the vocals. It’s how all of it works together. That might be the most modern aspect of their approach, clearly grown out of a Boston punker/hardcore ideology – “no rock stars” – but it’s well met by their classic rock structures and heavier leanings. Even at his roughest (i.e. even on those demos), Harrington is never separated entirely from a melody, and his professionalism is wonderfully matched in the presentation of the album’s 11 central cuts.
What Cortez don’t do, however, is fuck around. There are very few ethics to which I apply universal favor, and strong songwriting is one of them. Cortez make songwriting sound innate, effortless, like the “Helter Skelter”-referential chorus that immediately plasters “Johnny” on the lining of the cerebral cortex like it’s a gig flyer is just what the band does every day after work. As the opener, “Johnny” emphasizes many of the album’s best aspects. It is impeccably constructed, briskly performed and crisply presented, and that remains a thread that runs all the way through to pre-demo closer “Nice Try.” A lyrical narrative of dudely heartbreak is met by undeniable groove, and Harrington’s melodies are infectious alongside O’Dowd’s riffing. It’s especially interesting to listen to “Johnny” as the first of the three demo tracks, because as they appear in order of “Johnny,” “Until We Die” and “Monolith,” that’s also how they come up on the record – just with other songs in between. So it’s probably something you might recognize your second time through or on some subsequent listen, but those songs sort of wind up being anchors for the rest of the material. “All Hail,” which divides “Johnny” and “Until We Die” on Cortez-proper, marries an epic intro to a driving guitar-led central figure – Hemond (also of Roadsaw and also in Black Thai with O’Dowd) gives an especially rousing performance here to provide early indication of the diverse style in his play that manages never to lose accessibility despite being technically complex, particularly in the fills – and shifts with about two of its total five minutes left to the aforementioned stomp, changing tempo some but mostly relying on Hemond easing off on the drums and opening the groove up some to match the guitars and bass. That sets a high expectation, but “Until We Die” quickly outdoes it.
The second of the three also-demo cuts on Cortez, it’s a song that, if you were to put it in a catchiest-track fight with “Johnny,” we’d all be dead before it was settled. Curiously, a spurt of acoustic guitar opens before the main chug takes hold, and though acoustics are layered in the bridge later, it’s still a strange inclusion, like Cortez wanted to issue a warning (maybe to Woody from Mighty High) that they were coming. It doesn’t matter once “Until We Die” gets going, as the groove and the structure are so fluid you’d pretty much have to press ‘stop’ to disrupt them. Furlo’s bass sounds hairier on “Ride On,” which fits the swagger in O’Dowd’s riff, and Hemond works a bit of tambourine in following the chorus as Harrington promises we won’t ever forget the good times we had. Like a lot of Cortez, it’s a song that’s remarkably unpretentious in what it’s trying to do, the heavy rocking atmosphere it’s projecting, but also like a lot of Cortez, that honesty is precisely why it works, capping side A and the first 20 minutes of the album in such a way as to set the listener up to be blindsided by the change in atmosphere that “Wormwood” signals. Once again, acoustic guitars begin, but unlike “Until We Die,” they also form the basis for the song, setting the progression that Harrington’s more subdued vocals will complement so well, and only really kicking in distortion when the chorus comes. Of course, it gets heavier in the second half, but Harrington layers in Cortez’s best harmonies in reply, adding depth to the build in the bridge before the initial verse movement reemerges momentarily and sets the tone for the cello-infused end of the song. “Beyond the Mountain” continues to expand the palette, incorporating Hammond organ from Cropduster’s Chris Coughlin and largely relying on that to distinguish it from the surrounding material before a semi-gang vocal serves as further reminder that there was probably a time at which all four of these dudes were in punk bands. In any case, the organ enhances, it doesn’t detract from the rest of what Cortez are doing, so when it comes back later in the record, it does so with welcome. First, though, side B continues with “Monolith,” the third and final of the tracks also included as a demo on the second LP.
Like its predecessors, it is unremittingly accessible and uncompromisingly heavy, showing those two doesn’t necessarily need to be mutually exclusive (though they usually are), and it also returns to the more straightforward approach that “Wormwood” and “Beyond the Mountain” veered from, Furlo giving his standout contributions on bass beneath the guitar solo at the midpoint. If Cortez get indulgent anywhere on the record, it’s in that midsection jam, which winds up comprising a decent portion of the 6:52 runtime, but they bring it back for one more chorus and pick up the pace for the finish, so even then, they don’t lose sight of what they want the song to do, which – as “Nostrum” strips down the acoustic/organ base of “Wormwood” even further – is essentially act as the straightforward anchor for side B. Where “Nostrum” most pivotally differentiates itself from “Wormwood” is in that it doesn’t get heavy at the end or anywhere else, keeping a firm presence from Coughlin’s Hammond alongside the acoustics even as Furlo and Hemond come in on bass and drums. These might seem like subtle distinctions, one song getting heavy and one not, but it has a big effect on the overall mood and balance of the record. My only regret is that on the vinyl, “Nostrum” can’t lead directly into “Satan” without an LP change in between, as the two tracks work exceedingly well together on a linear digital listen. Almost as well, in fact, as Cortez are able to adjust to the slower, more traditional doom pace of the song, easily also the darkest atmospherically. The organ stays, but is mixed much lower, and when the tempo ratchets up, it’s only to be knocked even further down by the song’s lurching end. A direct flow into “Northlander” – the longest inclusion here at just over eight minutes – would seem to be a continuation of that feel, but though slow and openly-riffed, “Northlander” is more stoner than doom in its vibe, Harrington recounting battle tales over a gradual build that operates structurally on a similar line to “Satan,” but plays out more patiently. O’Dowd self-harmonizes with extra layers of guitar, and a chorus emerges that’s not as essential as some of the earlier side A cuts, perhaps, but still enough to give Cortez’s linear flow some context by the end.
By the time “Nice Try” comes on to round out the solid 59 minutes of Cortez proper, the foursome have covered a significant amount of ground while still staying within the context of their genre, whether through instrumental arrangement or what they do with their riffs. In turn, “Nice Try” follows suit with every track before it in that it has something to stand it out. O’Dowd rips a tasty solo, but he’s done that plenty at this point. Furlo and Hemond make short work of impressing rhythmically, but they’ve done that plenty as well. Where the standout moment for what’s basically the last track on the album comes is after a big slowdown. Furlo fits right into the pocket on a killer doom groove while O’Dowd squibblies out some noise until a monster riff kicks in and, finally, Harrington tops it, veering from his usual tight-push belting into genuine shouts that, in layers, take vicious hold of the chugging finale of the album. Two thuds and then they’re done, leaving one last flip of the record to bring about “Johnny,” “Until We Die” and “Monolith” for one more context-giving runthrough. I’m still back and forth on the idea of including the demos as the band does here – especially on their own vinyl side, they seem all the more a substantial portion of the record (a quarter of it) rather than what might be designated “bonus tracks” on a CD – but as someone who’s loved these songs for some time now, I’m not going to complain if Cortez want to throw them in. After all, they’ve got a half-decade of time to make up for. The good news is these songs and the rest of Cortez do that. The bad news is even though members have other bands to account for, I don’t think Cortez is going to be able to stick to their half-decade pacing in terms of putting out records.
Wait a second. That’s good news too. I guess there isn’t any bad news. So be it. Cortez finally have an LP out, and it’s a fucking beast to behold. Even though it couldn’t be my label stamp on the back of the thing, it’s a downright thrill to hear these dudes doing what they want to be doing, on their own terms and uncompromised either in approach or the sheer scope of the thing. Hard to make a collection that’s worth a five-year wait, but there you go.