Earlier this year, Patrick Galbraith’s much-circulated Map of Metal, a Flash-based taxonomy of devil-horned music post-Sabbath, cartographically charted a genre’s stylistic migrations from the fatherland, its allies, its diaspora, its outposts in other stylistic territories. Although executed with more gloss than scholarship, unwieldy to navigate, and unworried with justifying its distinctions, its visualization is an apt and fundamentally percipient one. From a forward-looking musician’s Boer-like reconnoitering of new sonic space to the way that the arbitrary divisions of genre change both history and future like borders drawn in newly-autonomous lands, there’s an underlying geography to be traced across the musical world.
Crystal Antlers, press-mothered second sons of Long Beach, have firmly planted their banderole in terra nullius. Strong-armed and able, with the noblest intentions for the progress of the human race, they’ve formed their citadel in a corner of the map less like the war-weathered crossroads of Malta than it is like Andorra, landlocked and unremembered despite the appeal of its surrounding countries. Their initial settlement showed great promise — their debut EP, by turns cooing and bestial, felt like a beacon in the proggy wilds. It squealed Stooges-like but curled along ley lines of pre-rock melody. 2009’s Tentacles civilized their sound a mote more, opening Hammond-paved thoroughfares in the shingly undergrowth and peaking with “Andrew,” which still sounds like The Walkmen gone Super Saiyan. The band’s slash-and-burn no-screech-left-unscreeched attitude towards tempo and subtlety, however, left the resulting album with a crusty cement flatness that made it feel like a cultural cul-de-sac. Too long spent listening to Crystal Antlers’ pounding wail may well leave one a little nauseated, and not in the satisfyingly spleen-rippling sense of the finest noise or metal.
“Summer Solstice,” the first-released track off Two-Way Mirror, the fruit of a regrouped and lineup-switched Crystal Antlers, sketched out while huddled together in a Mexican barn, amends some of the more tiresome aspects of their previous output. It maintains the headstock-nodding guitar work, the coherence between players, and the alternating structure, but it winds down the pace and pokes some air holes in the top of their sound. Johnny Bell’s vocals still feel hoarsely 90s and belligerently nondescript, but they lay nicely between the thrum of toms and the preening guitar lines. “By The Sawkill,” which directly succeeds it, barrels into the opposite side of the spectrum with a Mastodon-leaning opening salvo and tenterhooked dynamic shifts that demonstrate the lucidity and control the band is capable of when they play to their audience instead of flailing. Even Bell’s hollering comes off urgent and forlorn over the song’s Birthday Party density. The ensuing title track completes the album’s early trifecta of tracks that, excised from their context, could have formed the base of an EP on par with their debut.
Yet Crystal Antlers feel declawed this time around, replacing moments of savagery like “Parting Song for the Torn Sky” with revivalist ditties like “Fortune Telling” and “Dog Days.” While this mellowing out brings with it a much less ulcerous sound, it also obviates the need for head-clearing interludes like “Way Out” and “Sun Bleached.” All professed influences — Marvin Gaye, Black Flag, Pere Ubu — sink anonymously into this woozy nothing, and songs like the homely calliope swirl of “Seance” do their best to efface the record’s genuinely thrilling crests. Two-Way Mirror unfolds in a mere 30-some minutes, in the time it takes to drive from one end of Andorra to the other, and like that little nation, it’s appealingly craggy but irrelevant.