Deerhoof may be the most volatile rock band working today. If you can look past the sharp angles and rabbit holes of their sound, there’s a brute force at work that most bands dealing in much simpler compositions can’t achieve. Their combination of intricacy and power — at its biggest and best on 2008’s Offend Maggie — is something they honed to a deep-cutting edge over their last three records.
But since then, the band left their home base in San Francisco, and has apparently left that sound behind as well. Deerhoof vs. Evil is a perfect Deerhoof record because, well, it doesn’t sound like any other Deerhoof record. It continues the unpredictability that makes the band so exciting, but it is also as restless and challenging a record as the band has ever made.
Though there is plenty of buzzing guitar here, the songs don’t focus there the way they did on Offend Maggie or 2007’s Friend Opportunity. Instead, this album deals in electronics and synth flourishes that cluster up, confuse, and threaten to break every song. Ill-shaped gobs of sound can untie a song, only to later weave themselves perfectly in the mix, the way they do on the jock jam for malfuctioning robots, “The Merry Barracks.” Synths can cast a horror movie pall over “Super Duper Rescue Heads!,” but they can’t drag down Satomi Matsuzaki’s spritely vocals. These opposing sounds come up all through the record. As balanced songs are upset by machinated noise, as guitar tones fade and blister, the band always seems to split itself in two.
They never forget their rock band foundation — drummer Greg Saunier is, unsurprisingly, crashing and brilliant here — but they simultaneously fashion themselves cobblers of disparate sounds. The flamenco flourishes of “No One Asked to Dance” sound like they can’t possibly come from the same band that gives us the 8-bit swirls on “Let’s Dance the Jet.” Deerhoof vs. Evil is a record of these two sides battling, that is for sure, but the staggering thing is how, in the end, these two sides don’t sound at odds at all. They mesh into a schizoid yet immediately bracing whole.
With all these different sound tangents, you may spend the record waiting for it to settle in. But here’s the thing: It never does. That titular showdown isn’t a boxing match, with its regimented rounds and order. This is a subterrainian brawl, with pieces clashing together one after another — or one over another — and we’re left to sort it out. Matsuzaki, too, seems to be sorting things out on the record, or trying to. She spends much of the album reciting repetitions, from big questions (“What is this thing called love?”) to denials (“This is not based on a true story”) to winking threats (“This is a stick up”).
She never offers answers, never quite defines the evil they’re up against, and the music never fully fills in the holes it creates. On Deerhoof vs. Evil, the band leaves cavernous gaps in these songs, holes that these new elements can ripple out into. It creates an unsettling affect where one songs never quite lies flush with the next. Even for Deerhoof, this is a tricky album to work your way through. But even if you never quite figure it out, it’s unlikely you’ll get tired of trying any time soon.