Review: The Donner PartyCutting Class


“Why do you play so fast…to be cool?” -George Washington

(Music lessons with Bob Genghis Khan)

There are a lot of criteria by which I judge new releases. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that I’m a picky bastard. On the one hand, I can appreciate the struggle bands go through to find their sound. I stand before you now, humbled by my own back catalog, and wishing no one had the misfortune of seeing my band play prior to the 10-year mark of our career. On the other hand, I get really frustrated by all the generic garbage that lands in my inbox. The long, overblown explanations about why a particular band is about to blow my mind drive me a little nuts. I know it’s all just PR stuff. I know they can’t just put, “Music sucks, don’t waste your time.” Somebody, somewhere will enjoy it, and as I enter middle age I am keenly aware that it’s impolite to yuck someone else’s yum. I do my best to keep my mouth shut.

In truth, I have the attention span of a gnat, but I can’t keep holding that against every album I come across. As near as I can tell, the problem occurs because I’m too familiar with the subject matter. It’s like hate-watching a once-beloved television show. I keep going out of some sense of obligation, but the writers ran out of ideas after season 6, and now that we’re on season 23. I can’t do anything but criticize anything and everything. I have to ask myself, “Is this music actually bad, or is it exactly as it was before and I’m only now realizing how derivative metal music can be?” Could it be that all those non-metal heads were right when they said it all sounds the same? Am I just chasing the proverbial dragon in my quest for new music?! Nah, fuck that. Most of y’all are just doing it wrong. The Donner Party is here to show you what it means to thrash, and their new album Cutting Class gives me hope for a better tomorrow.

I’m now going to wax poetic for a while and tell you just how I go about judging this stuff. Be warned, if opinions are like assholes then believe me when I tell you: I’m a real asshole. First of all, if your drummer is a lazy oaf, I’m gonna call you on it. I’ve actually heard a lot of good bands throw away some great riffs because their drummer has seemingly made the decision to play the LEAST compelling beat to accentuate that part of the song. It breaks my heart every time. I’ll go one step farther than that when it comes to crossover thrash. If what you’re playing doesn’t make me want to run in a circle, you’re doing it wrong. Please, by all means, play fast until I can take no more. The drums have this innate ability to kill the momentum of any song at any time. Consequently, when they decide to slow down, the rest of the band is affected by default. You gotta know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

I should point out, this is all one big compliment towards The Donner Party’s drummer, Matt Yar. You fucking killed it, bud. Chef’s kiss and rats off to ya! Not only does Matt keep it moving, but you can tell the guy is genuinely listening to the other members of the band. The fills, cymbals, and pauses are all perfectly placed. It moves, it grooves, and transitions in all the right places. Did I mention transitions? Let’s talk about transitions for a second…

I believe good transitions are the key to writing good music. In fact, how you change riffs is sometimes more important than the riff itself. I’m not saying your guitar riffs should suck. For god’s sake, they should not. But this is crossover thrash, baby. It’s supposed to be catchy. It’s a genre literally designed to breed earworms in vast quantities. I actually care less about the originality of the riff and more about how you get from point A to point B. Let’s face it, there is a formula at work here. The genre is pretty much mapped out by now. But trem-picking and thrash beats can only take you so far. So what am I suggesting? Maybe the end of that one riff pushes into the next by extending that little flourish you played to close out the previous phrase. Maybe it’s about changing the picking pattern or half timing those same chords you’ve been riding the entire song. An interesting pause here and there really helps to keep things moving. Maybe the guitar changes over the drums, or the drums change over the guitar.

Whatever the case, The Donner Party has it figured out. Even when the structure leans into a standard verse/chorus, it never actually feels that way. They do this beautiful thing where they never overstay their welcome. Instead of overplaying a riff, the song is just over. It’s done. You want to hear it again? Then listen to the record again. When they do repeat themselves, there’s a ton of subtle variation at work. I don’t think I’d go so far as to say it’s “progressive”, but there’s a deep complexity that seems very intentional. Sure, you don’t have to listen to it on that level to enjoy it, but if you are looking for that depth of sound, it’s there. Check out the change ups in the song “Metal Mallitia.” I think you’ll see what I mean.

If you’re still reading, it’s because my pretentious bullshit is either striking a chord with you, or you’re a very forgiving person. Maybe my attempts to articulate what I think it takes to make a great record will fall flat or simply not resonate with others. That’s all well and good. For those of you still listening, I think I’d be remiss not to point out the sheer quality of vocal work going on throughout the entire album. They come in and go out at all the right times. The lyrics are absolutely fantastic. The word play is superb. At no point is that more apparent than the track “Poser Stew.” I didn’t know you could make so many cooking puns using that subject matter, but my god is it ever satisfying. “Poser calzone, a poser minestrone!” I swear it gets me every time! Did I mention the sound clips? Why don’t albums have sound clips anymore? Okay, I actually know the answer to that question. But it’s still fucking awesome when a band uses them in clever ways.

I kinda think good sound clips are an art form unto themselves. It’s like a shot of adrenaline for me when I hear a good sound clip. If I know the movie, I get all excited and want to tell everyone. “I know what that’s from! Do you know what that’s from? Me and the band like the same things!” It makes me feel special. It creates some imagined connection with the band and makes me think we all might high five after a show some day. The other side of that is sometimes I don’t know what the clip is from and want to find out. I’ve found a lot of good movies that way. In all honesty, I don’t know where pulling sound clips originated in the metal world. Is it a grindcore thing? A thrash thing? It seems to “crossover” a lot of genres. See what I did there? I’ll see myself out…

So where does that leave us? Obviously I like this album. In fact, I love it. I said as much to the band the day after I received it. I honestly think it’s a crossover masterpiece and I cannot overstate how impressed I am with the band’s ability to innovate and stay true to the genre at the same time. There’s probably plenty of people out there who think I’m over-analyzing all of this and have become the equivalent of a high school English teacher who goes so in depth about why you should appreciate something, they suck all the personal interpretation out of a work of art.

But that’s exactly why I think this album works so well. You don’t have to give a shit about ANYTHING I just talked about to enjoy the record. If you are looking for a surface level, fun, thrashy sound that keeps the blood pumping and the circle pit moving, you’ve got it. No need to dig any deeper. The whole record is catchy as hell and no one need enjoy it for any other reason. However, if you’re like me, you like to know WHY an album is giving you a sudden rush of energy when so many categorically similar bands are currently putting you to sleep. It helps to inform future listening experiences. It helps save time. I know what I like and I’m past the point of settling for less. When a band brings their ‘A’ game, I think it should be recognized. And this album checks so many boxes it’s not an overstatement to say this is now an all-time favorite for me

Classic use of sound clips? Check! A vocalist that writes clever lyrics, performs as his own instrument, AND enunciates enough for me to understand the words? Check! How about guitar solos? Oh yeah they are there. They don’t just feel like someone playing scales, they rhythmically add depth and energy to the song, so again, big ol’ check! Holy shit, I CAN EVEN HEAR THE BASS PLAYER!

Cutting Class dropped on June 9th as an independent release. I’d once again like to thank the band for letting me hear this record a few days early. It didn’t land in my inbox as a promo. I reached out to them directly because the preview tracks from This Toilet Tuesday were just that damn good. For fans of SOD, Suicidal Tendencies, DRI, Smash Potater, Gama Bomb, Toxic Holocaust, and a million other bands I’m failing to recall at this time. The Donner Party truly delivers on all fronts, including a kick-ass band name. Lord knows those are hard to come by these days. Don’t be a poser. Give this one spin. If you don’t like it, you probably hate fun.

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