It starts and ends with a scream: The lacerating shriek of lead singer Julie Christmas bookends Coward, the sophomore album by New York City metal foursome Made Out of Babies. Her fierce holler kicks off "Silverback" with a rush of rage, and it caps off the roiling build of "Gunt" like an exclamation point crafted from barbed wire. The timbre of Julie's screams sets the tone for the music sandwiched in between them - Coward is an album of brutal intensity, a brawny slab of songs swung like a sledgehammer towards the spot between the listener's eyes.
The band's name brings to mind a goregrind outfit, the kind of group that plays as loudly and rapidly with as little variance as possible while a guy who sounds like Cookie Monster growls about meat hook vasectomies. To my everlasting relief, any fascination with grue stops at the moniker - Made Out of Babies play solid, hefty metal with a weighty bottom end. The prominence of bassist Cooper's instrumentation lends much of Coward a tone that's both sinuous and sinister whilst beefing up the mid-tempo churn that is the band's specialty. They can do fast - check out the bludgeoning "Silverback" or the whipsaw attack of "Mr. Prison Shanks," where guitarist Bunny gets to take front and center - but the majority of Coward is a slow burn. The atmosphere gets thick, thick enough that Matthew Egan's drums feel a bit muted. (That's likely a production flaw; producer Steve Albini tends to do things like that.)
It's fortunate, then, that Christmas's pipes are well-equipped to cut through the raging sludge. As mentioned earlier, the ragged caterwaul she emits is impressive. As I'm inordinately fond of bands with screaming female leads, I was perhaps predisposed to enjoying that part of the band's arsenal; what I didn't expect was her equal adeptness with smoother sections of the human vocal range. Christmas also possesses a hard-edged croon which she showcases to great effect in the midsection of Coward, most notably on "Death in April." It's tuneful yet with a slight touch of truculence, which only enhances the nervous-making air about much of the album. Whether singing or shouting, Christmas is a true find.