GRATE EXPECTATIONS Just don't go expecting to see a metal band.
Loving heavy rock is a two-step process. Step one is easy: you hear something heavier than you've ever heard before, and you realize, "This is my thing." Step two is a little trickier: you wonder, "What is 'heavy'?" If you can accept the idea that a certain set of limitations leads to ultimate heaviosity, then — kudos! — you are a metalhead. Enjoy your well-defined culture of headbanging. But if answering that question has led you on a lifelong journey to the very edges of truly, deeply heavy music — well, then, you probably already listen to Harvey Milk (the band, not the guy).
A quickie primer for those just joining us: formed amid the party-centric college rock of Athens (Georgia) circa 1992, the Milk (who come to the Middle East this Tuesday) went through a number of line-up permutations in their six-year pursuit of heavy qua heavy before calling it quits in '98. During a seven-year hiatus, the world somehow caught up to them, and their inspired return to form on 2005's Special Wishes (Troubleman Unlimited) was received well enough to deliver them from the soul-deflating obscurity that had characterized the first era of their existence.
"In the beginning, our sound had to do with our limitations," says guitarist/vocalist Creston Spiers, whose reflection on the band's early years makes sense given the recent Hydra Head re-release of their homonymous debut from 1994 on CD. "When we tried to play soft, we played really soft, and when we played loud, we played really loud. We have always been about extreme dynamics. In our early days, we intentionally wrote songs with long silences — and lots of wonderful heckling opportunities."
If you are familiar with the high-drama push-and-pull of their music, the very idea of heckling just seems — well, inappropriate. Creston concurs, remarking that "in the early days, I remember a lot of crickets between songs." The band were drawn to those cricket moments, adding awkward pauses, stops, and silences to their knotted fretwork and torturously slow riffage. The result was the hard-rock masterpiece that is 1995's Courtesy and Good Will Towards Men (Relapse). An uncompromising record that mixed its punishing weirdness with delicate acoustics and mournful vocals, Courtesy remains an unclassifiable high-water mark, crushingly heavy without being "metal," dissonant without really being "noise," and far too aggressive and sure of itself to fit in with much of the indie rock of its time. "It was kind of treated as a metal album when it came out — which is funny, because anyone coming to see us as a metal band would be disappointed."
You could even say their timing has been perfect all along. During their dormant years, downtuned sludge experienced something of a heyday, and metal and hard-rock fans acclimated themselves to wave after wave of ever more bizarre noisemakers. By the time Milk resurfaced with Wishes, and then 2008's equally triumphant Life . . . The Best Game in Town (Hydra Head), their extreme dynamics were fitting right in.
Not that they particularly cared. "I dunno," Creston concludes, "I always see us as a real song-oriented band. I mean, sure, the new record, it's really slow and really heavy. But it's also wall-to-wall vocals, you know? Even if we're using, like, fingertwisting parts and super-distorted guitars, we're still just trying to sing the song, you know?"
HARVEY MILK + COALESCE + ATLAS MOTH + PHANTOM GLUE | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | March 9 at 9 pm | 18+ | $15 | 617.864.EAST or www.mideastclub.com