I’ve wanted to write about the record The Strain by Teeth for some time now, but given the subject matter, I’ve never quite been sure how to approach it. For those who are familiar with the compelling story of John Grabski, creative force behind the short-lived duo, I certainly can do no better than what has already been written.
Through the benevolent powers of the internet, John found a community to share his story of his battle with cancer. Shortly before his death, he recorded a seven-song LP with his brother Ben and Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago. It’s an unvarnished document of his fight with cancer: the medicine and surgery, the hope and vulnerability, the struggle to make sense and learning how to deal with the limited time one has. The project adopted the motto Rock vs. Cancer; Rock Wins, which captures the spirit of the record.
Given the backstory of The Strain, it would be understandable to go easy on it, give mild praise and move on. But I can’t. It’s a hard record to listen to if you are someone who only enjoys happy music with hummable choruses.
But this one’s a slow burn. The more you listen to it, the more it reveals. Once it gets into your head, it stays there and you can’t wait to listen to it again and again.
Stripped down to the basic elements of rock, The Strain is raw and personal. The spare arrangement of overdriven bass, guitars and vocals matched with John’s propulsive drumming is a timeless example of the kind of grunge from the days before the word became a marketing term. It is a lyrically-packed exclamation of artistic achievement that stands on its own.
While the subject matter is about cancer, The Strain is not so much about dying as it is about living. And even though John died shortly before the vinyl was distributed (the digital album was available at that time), the record captures a man filled with life, not in the throes of death.
At quiet volumes, the mix sounds almost dry. But there is a ton of headroom in the mix, so The Strain sounds better at proper rock volumes — where the dynamics of each song are given space to shine. There you feel the warmth of the amps humming in spaces between the notes of patient riffs and outros.
“Platinum” opens with John growling, “Don’t sell yourself short. The money’s not coming,” as bass and guitars churn a one-chord riff peppered by snare hits. It ends with him staring down his disease, defiantly singing, “I’m in cold storage. I’m a death a machine. I’m serious as cancer. I’m a medical dream.”
On the title track, John reveals his vulnerabilities with a voice reminiscent of Kurt Cobain. Accompanying a driving dirge of chunky chords, he pours his heart out in the refrain: “As we’re told/As we’re schooled/Lie! Release me/Far from thee/Fly!” (I hope I am hearing that correctly.) As the song nears its end, it changes direction with a note-bending riff and John screaming “hopeful.” Power and emotion pounding, every note, every lyric connects.
John reveals himself resigned to the hand he’s been dealt in “Miscreant Seeds,” singing “and I know, now I’m ready.” It closes on a chorus of drums with a bit of slap-back echo or similar effect. I don’t know if the symbolism is intentional, but the effect sonically ties in nicely with the reflecting he’s done to get to this point.
The Strain closes with the cathartic seven-minute “Great Failure/Teeth,” my favorite of the set. The song mournfully churns along, building to a beautiful, disonant crescendo and then stops on a dime and heads out with a two-chord hardcore chorus, punctuated by John’s drumming and overdriven voice shouting, “I’ll cut you with my teeth! I’ll cut you with my teeth! I’ll cut you with my teeth!”
“Don’t sell yourself short” is a lyric that appears in a couple songs. It’s an apt summation of this record as well as John’s life. The Strain is an honest, emotional dose of thunder that — like it’s creator — ends too soon.
This may not be a record you want to listen to all the time. But there will come a time when The Strain is something you need to have.