Head over to Cymbals Eat Guitars’ website and you’ll find the lyrics to every song on Lenses Alien run together into one, arbitrarily broken block of text. It’s a fitting presentation: the disjointed fragments of phrases and images all pushed together into a semblance of continuity until it’s impossible to draw any distinctions between the beginnings and endings of things.
The opening track “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)” clocks in at eight and a half minutes, the longest single track the band has recorded to date (though not too far out of the range established by their 2009 debut, Why There Are Mountains). Within the first 30 seconds, the song is pulling us in two separate directions: an ominous guitar figure plays over singer Joseph D’Agostino’s elliptical narrative about an expressway sniper (told, seemingly, from the perspective of a victim), only to transform into something sunny and almost jaunty during the movement’s faux-chorus. At a minute and a half, the competing polarities rip the song in half and the melody disintegrates into a metronomic drum beat and a fog of distortion that slowly dribbles off to near silence before regrouping for another go-round. The remaining four minutes pulse between glistering, Pixies-esque punk; a creeping dirge; and thundering grunge rock riffage, until the track unceremoniously sputters to its abortive conclusion.
But if “Rifle Eyesight” plays out like like half a dozen different songs strung together, the rest of the album begins to feel like one long song arbitrarily divided into separate tracks. Nothing else even reaches the five-minute mark, but these compositions are twisting, mercurial things that change shape almost imperceptibly before your eyes. The album rushes along like a river bursting its bank, and strange things occasionally swirl to the surface: some “Tundra/Desert” disco noise delivered in an Isaac Brock shriek at the end of “Plaincloths”; the sinister, stagnant quietude of “The Current”; the strident guitar that almost resolves itself into a full riff at the beginning of “Secret Family.” This sort of nonlinearity should be familiar to fans of Mountains, but while songs like “…And the Hazy Sea” and “Wind Phoenix” provided instantly gratifying hooks for the listener to find purchase in, Lenses is a bluff that’s far more sheer. It surrenders its pleasures less willingly, and only under greater scrutiny. I have to admire the ballsiness of that, even as I’m pining for some of the standout tracks of their debut.
And, of course, D’Agostino’s lyrics remain a continued point of interest. Like The Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala, his words seem to hover on the edge of meaning, trafficking in the surreal and the abstract. Unlike Zavala, however, D’Agostino manages to ground his impossible imagery and metaphysical flights of fancy in scenes that are, at times, unsettlingly concrete. There’s a thread of violence winding through the labyrinthine corridors of this record, from the sniper victim of “Rifle Eyesight,” to the story of the man who murdered a state trooper in “Plainclothes,” to the neighborhood basement thrill killer of “Wavelengths.” (Hell, the last song is titled “Gary Condit,” for God’s sake.) The worst things are those left unsaid, like that warning to watch out for cars with no lights on because ”If you flash the they will swing around/ And follow you home/ And in the lamp light living room.” The wider significance of it all is still a mystery to me, but it’s all the more enticing for that.
As a sophomore set, Lenses Alien is daring and cohesive, layered and challenging. The obtuseness of it demands the kind of attention that few (if any) indie rock records call for. My appreciation for this album increased exponentially when I was able to give it my full focus, yet I have to admit that it’s a somewhat academic sort of appreciation. The impulse to listen again comes more from a desire to figure out what lies within some of the record’s murkier depths rather than to repeat the pleasure of the listening experience, and the lack of the sort of instantly memorable tunes that populated its predecessor is another definite drawback. Still, one has to admire the band’s ambition and willingness to take risks. There are countless artists mining those halcyon days of the early- to mid-90s, but these guys are among the few who are really seem to refashion those base elements into something that feels both fresh and beguiling.