Was anyone else surprised by Cymbals Eat Guitars when they covered Superchunk for the A.V. Club's Undercover series? Given all the '90s rock coversation that goes on around them, shouldn't have their take on "Detroit Has a Skyline" been too straightforward, too on the nose?
Well, in a word, no. They changed Superchunk's tight hooks into something ragged and torn open, something utterly true to the original, yet off-kilter. That's because, as much as we try to lump the band into a simple rock category, Cymbals Eat Guitars creates a slippery sound, one built on bizarre textures and unruly structures. After their breakthrough record, 2009's Why There are Mountains, they've returned with Lenses Alien, and it's every bit as exciting and tough to pin down as its predecessor.
If the title implies a strange perception, one meant to throw us off, then they go ahead and knock us sideways right off the bat. Lenses Alien gives us moody riffs under bleating vocals, distorted feedback experiments, jangling power-pop, affecting turns of negative space, and squalling rock crescendoes. Oh, and that's all in the first song. Opener "Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)" is a nearly-nine-minute beast, corraling all the band's unique textures into one heavy, and brilliant dose. It's an uncompromising start to the record, and in that way fitting, as the rest of the album never settles down or lets us get comfortable. The shifts in sound and tempo come quick and without warning, and half the pleasure of the album comes in working to keep up.
There are some straight-up rock songs here, like the squealing charge of "Keep Me Waiting" or the more spacious mood of "Another Tunguska," that hold their shape and build on hooks and melody, and the band proves plenty capable of that kind of pop tune. But most of the record shifts all over, especially lead single "Definitive Darkness." At first, it seems in step with these poppier tunes. The guitars clear out for Joseph D'Agostino's strident but tuneful voice. But the melody, catchy as it is, is still hard to follow, and his lines rise and fall in quick-fire fits. The song bottoms out halfway through, trading in the band's usual distorted shred for something far spacier, and the echoing guitars and towering vocals close the song on a perfect high note.
Though the road through it is thorny, "Definitive Darkness" is as clean as the record gets. Everything else here -- from the murky thump of "The Current" to the overcast closer "Gray Condit" -- grinds and shrieks with noise. Even the acoustic-driven "Wavelengths" grows from sweet harmonies to sharp growl. As these songs move, they shift on blurred hinges. A guitar squalls out feedback, a cymbal crashes, and they're on to the next shift. It makes for an album that flows together in its oddball way, even as the songs themselves try and hold together. This all reflects much of the illogical fear that runs through the record. There's more than one mention of urban legends (needles between movie theatre seats, cars with their lights off at night) and the whole record finds D'Agostino's voice sounding rushed and nervous.
It can make for a bit too much chaos in places. "Plainclothes" has a loose narrative that moves from a state trooper struck by a car to a chase with an unrelated car to the taste of psychedelic drugs. The song itself shifts as much as the narrative, but it's just a bit too much at once. The songs around move in subtler, if still punishing, ways. But if that song sticks out, it's because the rest of Lenses Alien is so strong. Despite all that fear, all the claustrophobia of this sound, this is a rock record that is exciting to listen to front to back. It's a difficult sound, but it's one you can spend countless spins digging into and figuring out. It may be easy to namedrop a litany of '90s bands to describe Cymbals Eat Guitars, but Lenses Alien proves that doing so is a fool's errand. This sound doesn't fit such easy spaces, which is what makes it so damn good.
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