Twelve Foot Ninja @ The Underworld, London, United Kingdom
Twelve Foot Ninja
+ Uneven Structure
First up, who the fuck are Twelve Foot Ninja?
As far as questions go, it’s a valid one. Hit up Wikipedia and it’ll assert they’re a “heavy fusion band from Melbourne, Australia”. But then, that’s akin to describing Rage Against The Machine as a “rap rock quartet”. Neither label does either band any justice.
What you might not know is that Twelve Foot Ninja’s 2012 debut record SILENT MACHINE saw them clock up over 5,000,000 YouTube views, win America’s prestigious 2014 Golden Gods Award for ‘Best New Talent’, break the world record for crowdfunding a video clip, and tour with some of the biggest bands in the world, and get billed on major US festivals. And all without the push of a major label.
The band has been embraced by the metal community but they certainly don’t see themselves as that. “If you had to pigeon hole us we’d be heavy fusion, but you know what they say about pigeonholes,” throws in guitarist Stevic Mackay. “They’re full of pigeon shit!”
Suffice to say it’s kinda apt for such a self-confessed anomaly to christen their brand new second album OUTLIER. But even that’s too simple an interpretation, says Etik. “An outlier to me is a fringe dweller, an independent thinker. A free radical. So, from our perspective, the title is really a tribute to those fans who truly support our work, who appreciate its value. They are the outliers. We cannot survive without them, so I see the title as a recognition of that symbiotic relationship.”
Guitarist Ro Hayes seconds the sentiment: “I also think ‘outlier’ is also a pretty bloody good word to encapsulate our place in the industry. Supposedly too heavy for rock, we’re embraced by the metal community despite not really being ‘metal’. If anything, the purists think we’re bit too ‘bing-bong’ to be true metal.”
By “bing-bong”, Hayes is being self-deprecating about Twelve Foot Ninja’s genre-bending approach to making music. While still very much a heavy rock band at heart, their sound is a mutant melting pot of djent, funk, Latin, jazz, salsa, reggae, acoustic, bossa nova and a whole suite of other styles. While it might cause the uninitiated to scratch their heads or prompt metal diehards to cry sacrilege, it hasn’t stopped a lot of people responding to the band’s unique sound. “It probably looks more confusing on paper than it sounds,” says Etik. “But these days we get more congratulated than written off for having the fortitude to attempt to mix things up the way we do.”
It’s also why the band’s hopes for OUTLIER are as much about sating the appetites of said loyal fans as winning more ears over to their cause. “For this album, we really wanted to focus on writing songs that could translate to one acoustic guitar and vocal and still stand up,” explains Mackay. “So-called ‘progressive music’ often relies heavily on rhythm and complexity, and as a result, melody and lyric is almost retrofit and can sound superficially placed. This time, we didn’t want to make music exclusive to those who understand what we’re doing on a technical level. We wanted to elicit emotive responses as well as cognitive ones.”
Etik says this new inclusive approach extended to crafting his lyrics. “For our first album, my lyrical content was mainly based around the storyline of The Twelve Foot Ninja or drawn from various sources such as Shinto Buddhism and Taoist philosophy. I’m quite a visual writer, but this time we wanted the lyrics to be more direct. It was quite a challenge, but I feel like we created something this time that feels a lot more cohesive.”
One of the more intriguing aspects to the band is that while there is a lot of humour inherent in both the band’s video clips and genre-flipping style, thematically speaking, the lyrics and the fantasy mythology of The Twelve Foot Ninja storyline remain quite dark. Etik believes that contrast doesn’t have to be jarring. “Straddling humour and serious mythological allegory might be a weird combo to some, but there’s no reason why the two can’t be inextricably intertwined. It’s all about balance. If anything, it reflects the dark and the light of being human.”
McKinnon agrees. “That sort of juxtaposition has always been the defining characteristic of this band. It’s what makes things interesting.”
What is interesting is that right now in America genuine hype is building that Twelve Foot Ninja are positioned to be the “next big thing” in heavy music – the kind of band whose success hasn’t really been replicated since the ’90s with the likes of System of a Down, Incubus, Slipknot, Tool, Sevendust and Soundgarden. The band are humble enough to see this as hyperbole. “I subscribe to the ideology of doing versus talking, so I’m reluctant to prophesise,” drawls Mackay. “Obviously I’d love us to be held in the same esteem as those bands, but whether OUTLIER is that breakthrough record… well, time will tell.”
Bassist Damon McKinnon adds: “It’s humbling to hear your band mentioned among that calibre of artists. But I dunno, maybe it’s an Aussie thing… I tend to play our achievements down rather than shout them from the rooftops.”
Humility aside, there’s little doubt OUTLIER is a record that’s going to elevate Twelve Foot Ninja to new heights.
Featuring a video clip that’s already clocked over half a million views on YouTube, lead track One Hand Killing is really the embodiment of everything the band do. Kicking off with a scrawl of dissonance, shimmering gong, gruff chant, hand-claps and guitar shots, it promptly drops into one of the most undeniably original and entertaining guitar riffs you’ll ever hear. Careening somewhere between swinging Southern blooze and sinewy djent, it literally sounds like two angry wasps engaged in rough sex. Without catching its breath, the song then detours through funktastic clean guitar, a muscular chorus, hair-metal histrionics and a queasy choral section. Throughout, vocalist Kin Etik switches seamlessly from rugged baritone, sardonic falsetto, cabaret croon and barrel-chested metal roar, while his multi-layered harmonies are as demented as they are inspired. By the time the song sidles stage-left with a smart-arse sprinkle of baby grand, you’re left utterly gobsmacked – as much by the brilliance of the genre-mashing as the sheer virtuosity of the musicianship. It’s clear Twelve Foot Ninja are no jacks o’ all trades; rather, they master them all and then some.
Sick follows suit, its tight clean chops segueing neatly into a big sashaying riff, before Etik’s meaty hook posits the question, “Are you sick of being tired? Are you tired of being sick?” As the singer explains, “The lyrics to Sick – particularly the line ‘Get out of your own damn way. You must be out of your mind’ – are actually self-talk I was grappling with during an open conversation with my manager and guitarist Ro. I was boxing with shadows and they called me on it.”
Then comes Invincible. The album’s lead single, it comes out throwing a mean right hook and follows up with a moshfloor mantra. The opening drop-tuned riff (imagine a coiling python in the process of consuming a duck – “quacka-wacka”) slides straight into brushed acoustics, overlapping harmonies and delicate falsetto, before a chesty anthem soars skyward. Backed ably by guest vocalist Lana Rita Sayah, whose backing harmonies come across like sinister seraphim, Invincible is the band’s first bona fide torch song, so there’s little surprise it’s already slated for high-rotation on US rock radio.
All clicking fingers, snapping wrists and velvet tuxedo, Oxygen’s mix of smooth bass and soul-rock hits its stride with a chorus that planes and dips in its first iteration then chugs and chunks in its second and third. Arguably the album’s strongest track, its middle-eight flirts with a tinkle of elevator muzak before shifting sideways into a sublimely jazzy solo break. And just when you think the song’s cheeky parody of casino cabaret has run its course, it launches into the kind of fat-as-fuck half-time riffage that turns moshpits into maelstroms.
Collateral beguiles with an intro of opium-den smoke and melancholic keys before getting seriously, seriously heavy. Driven by a leviathan-sized stomping riff and a full-throated chorus, it climaxes with Etik’s serrated scream before falling away into a ragged whimper.
A stylish blend of funk, chunk and Latin-tinged spunk, Post Mortem straddles big hooks and finger-picked flamenco. But it’s the acoustic-flecked chirrup of Point Of You that really surprises, offering up perhaps the album’s most accessible tune yet. With its flare of farting trumpets, pattering piano, hammy honky-tonk Hammond, slow-hand lead break and catchy-but-kooky chorus, it’s a sure-fire hit single in the waiting.
An exercise in avant-garde Eastern experimentalism, Monsoon is one of OUTLIER’s more left-field curiosities as the chatter of tablas link a syncopated sitar-line, sidewinding guitar and a rapid-fire riff. Think Bollywood with brawn, Mumbai meets metal or an Indian wedding band staffed by idiot savants, and you’re getting kinda close.
As the album’s penultimate cut, Outlaw somehow manages to veer from a polyrhythmic groove to polka to piano-licked power chords and then back again, while at the same time toting another big sing-along hook. In fact, after Etik belts out the heartfelt line “This is my last song for you”, it might just be the one phrase you walk away humming the most.
Last up is Dig For Bones, and what a middle-finger-raised finisher it is. Technically dazzling, it’s also the one tune that also wears its Mr. Bungle influences most unapologetically on its sleeve. Splitting personalities at whim, it switches from chicken-pickin’ geetar to math-metal melodrama to game arcade jingle, before closing proceedings with a sanguine piano melody, a slowing pulse and the hum of night-time crickets.
Conclusion: Utterly undeniable and in a class, phylum and species all of its own, OUTLIER is an album which is not only about to put Twelve Foot Ninja smack-bang on the map, it’s going to redraw the boundaries of what heavy music can be. Better yet, it’s gonna use an angry red texta to do it.