‘Lenses Alien’? An album about an extraterrestrial optometrist?
This, the newest album from Staten Islanders Cymbals Eat Guitars, kicks off with its longest song, ‘Rifle Eyesight’, during which the album title is referenced for the first, and to these ears, last time. Featuring at least three song cycles, over eight minutes interspersed with portentous clanging piano and droning cello, it’s where the album finds its most cerebral and otherworldly ambition. In that regard, it almost seems like it’s followed by nine B-sides. But faithful listeners will find that what follows does indeed have its own agenda…
‘Shore Points’ calms things down a bit with its 2 and a half minutes of ’70s-inflected melody; ‘Keep Me Waiting’ is a relentless noisy assault; there’s almost a ballad in ‘Plainclothes’, with its sweet, down-tempo intro. “There was a man who killed a state trooper / drove his pickup truck to Belmar” is an effective enough MacGuffin, but the band’s Boss Super Overdrive pedals are never far away. Their enthusiasm for multiple dynamics within the same song does lead to confusion in the listener – if you want heavy, this is too quiet in places, if you want quiet, this is too loud. An indication of lack of experience in the songwriting department, or a stubborn adhesion to their modus operandi?
‘Another Tunguska’, referencing the 1908 incident when 830 square miles of Russian forest were turned to matchwood by the impact of a meteoroid, works better in concept than execution. Plenty of considered noise, delicate interludinousness, and the listener is none the wiser as to CEG’s opinion on asteroid deflection strategies. Oddly, the lyrics “1927 / an explosion” seem to contradict the facts, and the sleigh bells at the beginning hardly set the scene of the June day when the incident took place. Presumably this is an allegorical tale rather than a literal one; with lyrics clear in the mix we would be able to tell, but in fact when the band gets going the lack of vocal clarity prevents further penetration into the underlying lyrical themes. It could be a shame, or it could be a blessing – without knowing the words it’s impossible to tell.
Slightly off-topic, there’s a developing lack of enunciation in the English-speaking world, primarily, but not limited to, the United States of America. The American accent in its finest heyday was defined by a slurred coolness; unfortunately this translates badly to latter-day communication, where coolness should take a back seat to precision. All too often the apparent style is a mask for imprecision in language: it’s only when you have something of true import to say that poor diction can be ignored. Of course, there are plenty of very well-spoken Americans, but their numbers are dwindling, as are the numbers of well-spoken Englishmen as regional accents become not just acceptable, but positively encouraged in the postmodern media. It is accepted that one should not be barred from a job in the broadcasting industry for being from the regions, but a certain level of conventional recognisability is desirable, in order that one’s message may be understood by the greatest number of listeners, no matter what regional accent they are used to. The plummy, exaggerated caricature of an English gentry-class accent that was called Received Pronunciation is all but dead in the media, but still thriving in certain private circles – perhaps it is time to introduce what might be called Plain English, on the basis that for every effort you, the speaker or singer make to pronounce your consonants, the listening multitude will have to make less of an effort to hear, making it more likely your message will be understood. It’s for your benefit, not theirs. Joseph D’Agostino, take note.
Anyway, back on message. The vocals are the only piece of the mix not to exhibit beautiful listenability – the drums, and toms in particular, have a depth and impact which is surely the sign of an analogue master, and worth the negligible impact of some tape hiss in the quieter sections. The guitars are panned reasonably hard left and right throughout, Beatles-style; slightly unnerving at first, but all the better to understand the dynamic of the band. Those lyrics that can be discerned show an obsession with mortality and the bodily malfunctions that ensure that condition. Milky cataracts, contusions, and aneurysms all make an appearance, along with one reference to orgasm which makes clear that that the price of dying isn’t an entirely worthless gamble.
Fans of Modest Mouse and their ilk should be happy that there is a younger band making interesting music in the same style, and it should be noted that CEG do sound fresh and listenable. This is an album that requires careful attention; almost too careful considering its muddy lyrics. Perhaps a piece of work that rewards buying on physical media so one can ponder the lyric sheet whilst appreciating the power within the music. The slightly unbalanced dynamic of having the longest song at the beginning, and several short pieces towards the end does buck the usual trend, but there is lots here to recommend to fans of well-recorded, complex guitar music. The metaphorical Alien should be proud of his influence on such Earthbound excellence.
‘Lenses Alien’, the second album from Cymbals Eat Guitars, is available now from Memphis Industries.