Undefined Collective

Album Review

Guerilla Toss

Twisted Crystal

3.5

Brian Pope

September 26, 2018

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Having spanned the realms of music from the grittiness and aggression of noise rock and brutal prog to the enchanting transcendence of synthesizer-soaked art pop, NYC-based quintet, Guerilla Toss, have established themselves as elusive figures in the music industry to say the least. Then when you consider their tendency to make every album sound completely different from the last, it becomes much easier to throw one’s expectations to the wind when heading into the band’s fifth LP, Twisted Crystal. With their new record, the band creates a fractured, kaleidoscopic universe through which to channel their inner chaos, and what occasionally meanders into just plain messiness, on the whole becomes a wonderfully discombobulating journey into the group’s warped psyche.

As opposed to the jerky dance-punk edge of the group’s last full-length, GT Ultra, Guerilla Toss take a more subdued and psychedelic approach with this tape, utilizing off-kilter percussion, heavily effected and hypnotic guitar riffs, and an excessive indulgence in the disorienting keyboards that have brought the band’s trademark sound to light. This transition makes itself abundantly clear with the album’s lead single, “Meteorological”, with a busy afrobeat-inspired breakbeat and roaring distorted guitar lick backed by some disorienting blotches of keys. Vocalist Kassie Carlson sounds absolutely robotic on this track, like an emotionally deprived cheerleader, as she chants “I want to be natural/meteorological” on the chorus. The hook features these swells of synths that pulsate and inflate as the chorus continues, really adding this urgency to the song. It sounds straight out of the playbook of some 70’s Berlin School like Tangerine Dream, something only Guerilla Toss could pull off. We get a similar sense of unbalance from “Hacking Machine,” which features these vacillating guitars and an undulating bass line that would be dizzying enough to knock a man off his bicycle were he to listen while riding. The mind-bending guitar solo on the track also heavily contributes to the surreal and disorienting vibe of the song.

“Vocalist Kassie Carlson sounds absolutely robotic on this track, like an emotionally deprived cheerleader, as she chants “I want to be natural/meteorological” on the chorus.”

While the record certainly claims an affinity for overstimulation, other tracks bring their glitchiness to a more concrete level, such as the new-wave inspired “Jesus Rabbit”. This cut features some strange Talking Heads-influenced bleeps and staccato guitar upstrokes that back some of the most sardonic and depressive lyrics on the record. Carlson acknowledges man’s inability to control their own afterlife, and laughs at the disheartening idea that one’s eternity must be decided by whatever hopefully existent force lies above them. The sentiment is captured in a strangely profound way through the jaunty bass synths and Carlson’s sarcastically flat yet seemingly uplifted tone on the chorus of the zany canticle. We get more of the 80’s new-wave inspiration with the album’s third and final single “Come Up With Me”, which defines itself with a bouncy bass foundation and hard rock ascending guitar lick. The upbeat rhythm of the song combined with the catchy, swift chorus makes it one of the danciest on the record, furthered by a blistering rock guitar solo on the back end that really brings everything together. I will say, however, that the song could’ve used a stronger vocal presence to really ring in that dance vibe, which is a criticism that unfortunately plagues some of the other less enjoyable songs here.
And that brings us to one of the least favorable cuts on the record, “Walls of the Universe”. The band brings in their typical hypnotic guitar lines and meandering keys here, but Carlson sounds deadpan in a way that simply comes off as uninspired rather than immersive as on the better cuts. I do enjoy some of the hallucinatory lyrics here, but they could have been presented in a more appealing way to really drive home that image the band attempts to exhibit. The same could be said about what would otherwise be one of the best tracks on the entire album, “Retreat”, which features this daunting bassline combined with a boiling tea-kettle whistle synth and an insanely captivating descending flute progression that creates an extremely off-kilter and freaky soundscape. But on top of this warped swamp of sound, Carlson’s vocals do little to stand out in the mix, while not completely sinking into it for added effect either. It really seems to be just an ongoing project of Guerilla Toss in their ambition to find an appropriate balance between the overstimulating, overproduced instrumentals and the energy of the vocals. It can be a difficult juggle, and unfortunately they don’t always rise to the occasion.
To their credit, bookending the shortcomings of an album still rife with good ideas are the two brilliant cuts “Magic is Easy” and the album’s supporting single “Green Apple.” Both have these krautrock style electronics coursing through them, the latter making use of a fractal breakbeat in conjunction with the synths to really push forward the soaring pace of the instrumental. The album’s opener brings this strange groove that really embodies the group’s dynamic of confusing their listeners as to whether they should be dancing or not, as well as incorporates some funky bass swells and hypnotic vocalizations on a hook that chants the cryptic phrase “The tip of the iceberg/the edge of the ice cube.” In contrast, the closer exemplifies the journey travelled with dissonant, plummeting synthesizers, a clambering guitar riff, and hypnagogic, omnipresent vocalizations that question the listener’s aplomb as to what reality is: “Do you really see?/ Do you really think that?” In remarkable fashion, these two tracks, while unmistakably being drawn from the same record, establish an astonishingly variant degree of sound that really speaks to the band’s diversity on the whole.

“In the end, it can become quite difficult to understand a record that so clearly would like to be misunderstood while simultaneously fully experienced.”

In the end, it can become quite difficult to understand a record that so clearly would like to be misunderstood while simultaneously fully experienced. But what Guerilla Toss accomplish here is truly a testament to their whim: to provide transcendence without ever fully offering clarity. In that sense they’ve expertly succeeded, and yet contributed in a way to many of the shortcomings that Twisted Crystal suffers from. At its worst it either drowns in overly messy instrumentals that do little to complement the vocals, or Carlson finds difficulty in matching the supremely outlandish compositions. However, at its pinnacle it offers an array of complex yet congenial songs that can be enjoyed both as head-bobbers and as mind-bogglers. With their best album yet, Guerilla Toss continues to be an unfathomable yet inviting sensation, while as usual leaving plenty of room for the next oddball mystery-box the prolific group shoots down the pipe.

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