With figurative chisels in hand, Chicago-based multi-instrumentalists Steven Hess and Mike Vallera have carved the names of a score of projects into the vast concrete expanse of the city they call home. Hess has battered consciousnesses as the percussionist of avant/post-metal champions Locrian, and crept through the ethereal fringes of the underground in groups like Pan-American, Haptic, and Ural Umbo (to select a few). Vallera explores guitar-based composition under his given name, and exudes dark ambient electronic rhythms as COIN, in addition to lending six-string accompaniment to new school American Primitive luminaries like William Tyler and Ryley Walker. As their catalogs and collaborative networks expand, Hess and Vallera have each traced out a signature sound that runs as the mainline vein through their would-be disparate projects: concentrative darkness, gravity, stone-jawed deliberation coupled with third-eye-opening surreality.

When united as Cleared, Hess and Vallera approach the stripped-down avant-“rock” duo format as a workshop for extended atmospheric performance and finely sculpted tonal details. Drown, their third full-length LP on Chicago’s Immune Recordings, showcases a series of patient trudges built around martial tom thuds, low-end drones, and chiming guitar figures — all conflated into a hypnotic whole with pronounced time-distorting capabilities. On the album’s title track, Hess provides a steady pulse as Vallera’s guitar performance channels the likes of archetypal dream-pop/shoegazers Vini Reilly and Robin Guthrie. His brittle tone, cushioned in washes of chorus, slides through an arpeggiated chord progression flecked with moments of major-key hope and half-step descents into darkness, as Hess’s muffled hi-hat and bass drum bursts ripple through the reverb-heavy haze.

You can pre-order Drown before its May 20 release date, or spring for a three LP shipment of Cleared’s vinyl catalog via Immune Recordings.

• Cleared:
• Immune Recordings:

Chocolate Grinder

CHOCOLATE GRINDER is our audio/visual section, with an emphasis on the lesser heard and lesser known. We aim to dig deep, but we’ll post any song or video we find interesting, big or small.