Rating: 4.5/5If the name Moss Icon isn’t very familiar even to the most name-dropping rock nerds, distinctive elements of the hardcore band’s sound probably are. Moss Icon wasn’t a directly seminal group to later rough-edged rock acts the way, say, Giant Sand was to desert-parched rock — in fact, Moss icon didn’t even outlive the release of its first album in 1994 — but punk in the decade that followed clearly owed some of its approach to Moss Icon’s unique brand of fury, philosophy and grit.
Much of this obscurity is the logical conclusion of a tremulous and short-lived stint as a band with a scattered set of demo releases over a few short years. Temporary Residence’s Complete Discography is a comprehensive, exhausting re-release of their entire proper discography in two discs, beginning with their first demo tape (“Mirror”) and including with their only true LP, Lyburnum Wits End Liberation Fly. Moss Icon formed in 1986 while its four founding members were still in high school, and that album demonstrated a shockingly singular identity behind a level of youthful band dysfunction that led to Moss Icon’s breakup by the early ’90s. Covering a string of varied and powerful tracks, most of them released as hard to find demos or singles able to impress on their own, Complete Discography makes it pretty clear all the reasons this band is canonized in punk’s lore despite being little more than a namecheck to many of its most ardent fans. “Divinity Cove” and “Happy (Unbounded Glory)” set a frantic beat than lurch maddeningly into new tempos and rushes of volume or bleak almost-silence, vocalist Jonathan Vance shouts out some songs but mumbles others in hypnotic, trippy incantations over extended lines of repeating guitar arpeggios, and all of these songs barely contain a frantic energy that manifests itself in assaults of noisy clatter or tense droning that sounds remarkably like Slint’s Spiderland, stretched to similar lengths. This reissue also sounds remarkably good — the bass web sludgy and round, the plucking of strings audible behind amped up grind and drums sharp and punchy.
And then there’s the lyrical content of Moss Icon’s songs. Vance’s performances might betray a youthful origin, but his words are gouging and audacious, abstract and emotive, taking on war politics, what sounds like jungle trekking vision quests and the cringe-inducing story of a runaway slave with no shortage of grisly detail (“As Afterwards the Words Still Ring”). Moss Icon approached hardcore with a unique willingness to try things from unexpected angles and record exactly what their tangled inspiration offered up, like the splintered stanzas and clauses that make up “Guatemala,” its riveting exploration of the same couple bars ground out over and over and over again. The title track from Lyburnum Wits End Liberation Fly covers nearly 12 minutes and numerous sub-melodies. Throughout, Vance emits a strained, unsure mix of sky-gazing conversation (with a pretty ambiguous subject), story and lecture, Monica DiGialleonardo’s bass rippling and Mark Laurence’s kit ebbing as the song plows on into minute after minute of possessed fervor. The song is clearly one of their most distinctive offerings, and is reason enough alone to consider this album or any of these recordings.
Critics like to point to Moss Icon’s layers of emotion and penchant for waxing lyrically when they cite the band an early prototype of what would become hardcore and punk’s emo offshoots, but they were more than just an ensemble of disgruntled shredders with a rather masterful sense of poetry and composition. Complete Discography repeatedly offers up tracks that defy categorization and absolutely demand attention while trying some pretty crazy stuff. Moss Icon was a short-lived band but their work burns awfully hot, especially bound together in a package that’s well over an hour and positions all these singular pieces into a tremendously strong whole. If Moss Icon was relegated to obscurity and their influence could only be measured in the most ethereal of ways, Complete Discography is fully capable of changing that archivist’s standing by presenting its short, unstable existence as a powerful and complete body of work.