Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band might invite comparisons to any number of contemporary indie-rock acts. Their angular guitar work and strident vocals call to mind the likes of Wolf Parade and, to a lesser extent, Modest Mouse. But these comparisons don’t hold up to repeat listens. Because these bands do all have something in common, but it isn’t necessarily a sound. They all make indie rock that is far enough removed from its influences to make it difficult to readily label the noise they’re making. It’s not punk rock, or new wave, or garage rock, or math rock, or any other tag you can think of. Though elements of those sounds might exist, they’re buried under the energy of Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, the distinct sound that came out of these players working together.
Of course, in some cases, this distance from influences can dilute a band’s sound, make them sound weak and derivative. Not so with Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band. They mine influences for inspiration, but not lifeblood. The frenetic energy that surges through these songs is the band’s own. They can’t borrow that from anyone. Benjamin Verdoes and his bandmates have put together a debut of impressive songs that can be infectious and inviting, but also caustic and surprising. They are a band incapable of sitting still, and as you listen to this record, you won’t likely be able to either.
The band take their noodling guitar lines and complicated chunks of bass in all kinds of directions on this album. There’s the bouncy verses and the blitzing choruses of "Who’s Asking," or the tumbling notes and thick cymbals bridging to more stripped-down hooks on "Anchor Dropped." There’s also lighter fare in the danceable stop-and-go of "Going on a Hunt" or the pop waltz sway of "Masquerade."
But through it all, no matter the rock they tackle, the band have a quick building inertia. There is no stopping this band once they get going, and they go at breakneck speed whenever they can. And when Verdoes guitar isn’t pulling off a speedy succession of notes, or he’s not spitting out every word as it comes to him, the band itself is switching pace and stopping songs in their tracks at every turn, often pasting incongruent parts together in the same track with surprising success. This ADD approach to pop songs works for them, as they always keep you off guard and never let their songs fall into ruts. They may overplay their hand with the too abrupt shifts in later songs like "Dull Reason" and "Little Red Shoes," but overall their willingness to push their songs out of set structures, into something with an even bigger hook or a more infectious melody, is what makes this band’s sound distinct and always enjoyable.
It is worth mentioning that the drummer, Benjamin Verdoes’ brother Marshall, is only 13 years old. The best compliment I can give him is to say you’d never know his age by hearing the record. He not only keeps up with the band’s urgent speed, but often he is the driving force behind them. Listen to his movement between rim taps and great cymbal work toward the end of "Going on a Hunt" to get all the proof you need.
But perhaps more impressive is how he, and the band as a whole, handle sounds that are a little more building and patient. "A Year or Two" shows singer Verdoes’ ability to tone down his high bark into a low-end croon, and behind him the band lays a soft, but still stringy and intricate, palate. Closer "On the Collar" may be the biggest surprise of all in an album full of them. The song slowly builds over seven minutes only to burst out, not in a guitar attack like we’d expect, but in a lush string arrangement. It might seem a strange, even restrained way to end an album populated by angular, shifting rock songs, but in the end, it suits Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band just fine. Because, while you didn’t see it coming, once you get there yet another sound out of left field makes perfect sense. These guys don’t sound like they’re running out of ideas any time soon.