Cymbals Eat Guitars
There’s something to be said about a band with a good back-story. Whether it be Colin Meloy’s pre-Decemberists major label rejection, Arcade Fire’s MySpace-fed rise to stardom or Broken Social Scene’s improbable pop collective evolving from heavy post-rock roots, an extra helping of affection is often levied upon groups with unusual or inspiring origins.
By that measure, New York four-piece Cymbals Eat Guitars should be indie darlings very soon. The band cut its teeth playing Weezer covers — Blue Album and Pinkerton songs only, they swear — in and around their Staten Island home. They self-recorded, self-produced and self-released a remarkably strong first album. And in the process, they captured the attention and adoration of Big Apple icons The Wrens — Charles Bissell predicted they would be “indie famous” within the year.
Like them already? Just wait until you hear Why There Are Mountains, a debut so solid and self-assured, it bears mention in the same breath with Vampire Weekend’s 2008 breakthrough.
Why There Are Mountains begins and ends with Joseph Ferocious’ ….umm… ferocious voice. If you’re not a fan of Isaac Brock’s yelp, Stephen Malkmus’ slur or Doug Martsch’s quiver, chances are it might take some time for Cymbals Eat Guitars to grow on you. From the explosive opening of “And the Hazy Sea” through the dynamic shift of closer “Like Blood Does”, Ferocious’ voice is the band’s most powerful and overwhelming instrument. And much like Brock’s performance on Modest Mouse’s The Lonesome Crowded West, Ferocious threatens to tear his band’s sonic construct to pieces every time he musters a scream.
For their part, the rest of the group does an admirable job keeping up with their frontman’s charismatic howl. Keyboardist Daniel Baer and bassist Neil Berenholz provide much needed color to some of the album’s barer moments. Drummer Matthew Miller keeps the pace up, obliterating his kit at each climax. The album is peppered with pretty string, horn and synth arrangements, which serve as a perfect contrast to the album’s squall.
But for all the seemingly reckless abandon, Why There Are Mountains is a calculated effort. Despite living and playing in New York City, Ferocious is constantly focused away from the bright lights of the big city. There are flights over hazy seas and Great Lakes, cruises through half-finished housing developments, road trips to rural outposts, tours around college campuses and strolls down Pacific beaches. At almost every stop, Ferocious makes observations about his environment and/or community. Decay is a frequent theme.
Even the album’s effervescent-sounding songs hide a gloomy trick card. “Indiana” sounds breezy and carefree, until you catch up with Ferocious’ prose: “I sense evil at the heart of each far flung well lighted home. I close my eyes and see cellar stairways vermiculated with delicate animal bone”. Later, during the album’s brightest moment, “Wind Phoenix”, Ferocious gets even darker: “In her last moments, I pined for times when I could never have dreamed of being responsible for the charred remains presently huffed by the most famous of the celebrity teenage drug casualties.” It’s heavy stuff, but it’s not surprising. Just like the album’s dynamic arrangements and sequencing, the otherwise awkward juxtaposition of happy sound/sad song seems so well thought out.
Did Cymbals Eat Guitars expect to become “indie famous” in 2009? Could they have foreseen that their brand of 1990’s abrasive indie rock would gel perfectly with post-9/11 environmental and communal concern to give plucky audiophiles tired of dance-punk a reason to raise their fists again? When they were rocking out to “Undone: The Sweater Song” did they imagine drowning their audience in the feedback of Why There Are Mountains standout “Share”? No one but the band knows for sure. But it makes for a pretty good back-story. (self-released, 2009)
By Blake Jackson