To make a hugely reductive statement: Rock ‘n’ roll converts primal, bodily experience into musical form, while prog rock sublimates those natural impulses into a challenging, intellectualized space. Few instrumental bands working today are as good as San Diego’s Sleeping People at reconciling the rhythmic thrust of rock with the formal abstractions of prog. For its second set of musical Gordian knots, Sleeping People travels down both roads further than ever before, resulting in an album as much about cold, alien mood as it is about shit-kicking heavy grooves.
Where Sleeping People’s eponymous debut in 2005 was thrilling but cautious, locking down the band’s complex arrangement style but never straying beyond that template, the band’s second record, Growing, makes good on the promise of its title. The interlocking, staccato rhythms on “James Spader” still twist together and unravel in complex knots like songs on the self-titled album do, but a stately piano chimes on each measure, emphasizing the elegant harmonic changes that Sleeping People used to obscure with their rhythmic craziness. Four short interludes build moody bridges between Growing‘s denser prog tracks — “Out Dream” creates a nature-documentary soundtrack out of luminous synth tones; back-to-back drones on “Underland” and “It’s Heart Loves Open” give the second half of an album an unsettling dark ambience.
Growing hits its stride when the moody stuff converges with the band’s signature writing style. “Mouth Breeder” follows two minutes of haunting Tool vibe and rising tension with a crushing 7/4 groove, all locomotive power and taut aggression, before collapsing into an ominous stretch of quiet interrupted by slashing, ugly chords. It’s the best song the band has written, a giant leap as emotionally as it is musically. But even “Mouth Breeder” is trumped by “People Staying Awake,” which closes Growing with a surprise vocal cameo by Rob Crow (Sleeping People bassist Kenseth Thibideau played with him in Pinback). Crow weaves in and out of the band’s rhythmic matrix like another instrument, sometimes doubling a guitar line and sometimes soaring out by himself. With this one track, man and machine unite, the leftover scraps of prog pretense are forgiven, and the members of Sleeping People open up exciting new possibilities for their next album.