Cymbals Eat Guitars

Lenses Alien

(Barsuk/Memphis Industries; 2011)

By Jordan Cronk | 27 September 2011

Cymbals Eat Guitars emerged a couple years back with both a typically indebted ‘90s indie rock sound and one of the more questionable band names in an era with no shortage. But two uncommonly confident, intriguing albums later, they seem all but content with letting listeners come at their moniker however they choose. Most would probably opt to ignore such a thing in light of such well executed guitar rock, even despite the Velvet Underground reference, but there seems to be something there that a surface level read not only hints toward but encourages. Their aesthetic has thus far not allowed for too much beyond the titular instruments, and I gather that’s the point, a suggestion that “indie rock will eat itself” or some such notion, and that it has been doing so for at least a decade now. Unlike, say, their contemporary ‘90s pillagers in Yuck, who’ve mostly narrowed in on a singular influence, Cymbals Eat Guitars fold in a wider, more brainy spectrum of classic indie rock touchstones. And they’ve only gotten bolder: the band’s new album, Lenses Alien, though not quite Perfect From Now On (1997), is still as expansive and intricate an indie rock record as you’ll hear all year.

What’s grown on me about the band and this album in particular—and it is just that, a grower—is how bravely they eschew traditional songwriting while working in what has become a fairly traditional genre. The band’s 2009 debut, Why There Are Mountains, featured its fair share of extended instrumental passages and winding structures, but now tends to play downright streamlined in light of what they’re attempting on Lenses Alien. On the whole the tracks aren’t much longer—save expansive (and wonderful) eight-minute opener “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)”—but the way the band seems to weave together the tailing strands of each track turns the album into a sort of movement-based conceptual piece, where double-checking your current song location is a frequently involuntary act, if only to regain your bearings after so many dime-sharp turns and playfully unexpected melodic detours. In an era of easy plays and soft lob genre efforts, it’s frankly refreshing to see an act not only so dedicated to their specific craft—it’s almost impressive how gleefully they shun any kind of additional adornment—but also to the potential that such a confining genre usually doesn’t precipitate.

Furthermore, they’ve done so while consolidating all their influences into a unified sound that ultimately echoes a lineage instead of outright quoting it. In the past it’s been fairly easy to name check Pavement, Modest Mouse, or, as I’ve already done, Built to Spill, but now these guys seem to be on a level where they’ve absorbed their heroes’ tendencies—namely, in the case of the latter two in particular, their ambition to push indie-rock out of the structural confines of verse-chorus-verse songwriting toward something grander and more cerebral—into a look all their own. Meaning, they sound like Cymbals Eat Guitars now, and not a conglomeration of ‘90s guitar bands with a penchant for feigning nonchalance. All this makes describing individual tracks rather difficult, as Lenses Alien really is of a single piece, moments bleeding into one another and guitar parts helix-ing in rather complex fashion—and all without many vocal hooks to hang your hat on. Pre-album teaser “Another Tunguska” does sound like a logical extension of Mountains’ more sing-song tracks, but even that feels intrinsically stitched to “Definite Darkness”‘s wordless vocal coda and the “The Current”‘s largely instrumental exhale.

And, to be sure, it’ll take a number of listens before the album really begins to take shape in your head. Best then to focus on the details of something like “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name),” which is damn-near prog-y as it contorts its way through a turbulent series of sharp lefts and Sonic Youth squall, or “Definite Darkness,” which rides singer Joseph D’Agostino’s burst of lead vocals into contemplative denouement which doesn’t lose the thread the way some of the more drawn out moments on the debut did. That’s not even to say, song for song, this is a wildly better record than Mountains. With its lack of definable hooks and focus on structural integrity, it’s inevitable that some songs, like the late-album one-two of “Wavelengths” and “Secret Family,” recede into the background while the opening half of the record gets by on sheer commitment. It is a more mature record though, a tag that most indie rock bands would probably avoid but which fits Cymbals Eat Guitars rather nicely.

All I know is I’ve spent a lot of time unraveling the contours and odd patterns of Lenses Alien, and that’s not something very many records in the genre offer anymore. It makes me think this band has a masterpiece in them somewhere—but whether that ever arrives or not, they’ve certainly given us enough to chew on until their next dispatch, which is now something to really anticipate.