Cryptograms is a tale of two days. The first day of recording, which birthed the album’s first half, was desperate. The band had fallen on hard times while trying to crack the desired “ambient-garage” blueprint. It lurches along in bursts, confused and furious in equal measure. Encouraged by that result, the band came back for a second session. The sweet and muddled songs that resulted are backward-looking and reverential, perhaps grateful to exist. Despite the tone shift, both sides seem bound to a warped aesthetic of stacked layers and cracked sighs. Forced together, they achieve a connective balance crucial for an age when rising to flip a record has become fetish behavior.
The first section is evenly split between white-noise corkers and motionless placeholders. Even the ambient cuts are guitar based, with waves of radiation ebbing and flowing without congealing into tidy patterns. Lazy piano refrains, accordion drone or piped-in nature effects are woven into the background. Just as you settle in to pastoral water ripples, you’re pelted in the face by sweaty scuzz rock. “Lake Somerset” is a menacing juggernaut of a song, all unintelligible screams and exposed nerve endings. It’s a Tourette’s yelp when heard book-ended by calm. This schizophrenia is exemplified by “Octet,” which seeks to reconcile the two poles. The serene blips are mixed higher than the bounding bass, and the voices moaning in the distance might as well be guitar feedback. It’s somehow cohesive, briefly floating the crazy notion that quiet and loud aren’t mutually exclusive before it retreats back to serenity.
The established relax-and-erupt pattern deserts the second side of Cryptograms. Ambient interludes still pop up but are subservient to songs that are disorienting for their reverbed beauty. “Spring Hall Convert” starts with deliberately enunciated vocals hanging in empty space, lonely and clear before additional layers invade. Bradford Cox’s fraying lisp seems to be on a different plane entirely from the lo-fi guitar chug and “ba duh duh” burst that might have staggered in from an early Pavement single. “Strange Lights” has the ’60s-plus static vibe of the finest Elephant 6 releases, almost approaching contentment. Best of all is the closing “Heatherwood,” which fuses rickety percussion and fuzzy melody in the style of the Tall Dwarfs, but with a gorgeous honey-dipped guitar line the cult Kiwis group never achieved.
The second half pop stride solidifies the charm of what was threatening to be a compelling yet prickly art record. The wordless mood pieces that unite the distinct sections might be lost on ADD playlist rangers, but in sequence they add an invaluable valve for tension and release. The wish for more than seven structured cuts is understandable but incorrect. When the proper songs throughout are so uniformly good in spite of their fractured approaches, complaining about scarcity seems despicably greedy.