During the lo-fi/shitgaze craze that crested a couple of years ago (and keeps chugging along now, albeit to lesser blog buzz), bands were coming out of the woodwork to unleash an avalanche of cassettes, 7-inches, CD-Rs, and even some old-fashioned “proper” albums on established labels. The energy and excitement of these recordings were the major draws, with groups pounding them out as if they had invented home recording, even rock ‘n’ roll itself. But while there was certainly an abundance of talented musicians — The Hospitals, Eat Skull, Psychedelic Horseshit — it was unclear what some of these groups would do beyond their two- to three-minute up-tempo rock tunes, if they’d do anything at all.
Sic Alps always stood out as one of the more unique of the bunch. Having a more carefully thought-out approach than most, the duo of singer/guitarist Mike Donovan and drummer Matthew Hartman rectified shitgaze’s aesthetic circularity by building on their punk and garage rock core with a sort of late-60s psychedelic vibe, falling on the dreamier, sparser side of that sound, more Skip Spence than Moby Grape, more Syd Barrett than Pink Floyd. And as demonstrated by their Description of the Harbor EP, they weren’t afraid to experiment with form either, playing around with seven minutes of feedback and noise before continuing with a group of pop-minded songs averaging about a minute and a half. They always made the gauzy quality of lo-fi recording seem more like a natural component of their music rather than a mere circumstantial necessity or nostalgic fetish.
In the two and a half years since the band’s last album, the excellent U.S. EZ, shitgaze has become an amusing but quaint also-ran genre name, subsumed by the vague but venerable lo-fi. In that time, Sic Alps haven’t released anything besides a 7-inch, a split EP with The Magik Markers, and a few stray compilation tracks. This was curious from such a previously prolific band, especially in an environment where so many bands seem to operate under the music scene equivalent of “publish or perish.” Whatever the reasons for their absence, though, Sic Alps have returned from their sort-of hiatus with Napa Asylum, a fantastic album that adds new dimensions to their sound without altering what made them so engaging to begin with.
Napa Asylum was recorded with two mics on an 8-track in a basement, though that description doesn’t do justice to how good the recording sounds. Sic Alps’ aesthetic was never as jarring or harsh as some of their peers, which actually matched quite well with Donovan’s lilting, sleepy voice. While the addition of Comets on Fire’s Noel Von Harmonson has certainly fleshed out their sound — his guitar creates an effect like a Les Rallizes Dénudés guitar solo bleeding over into a radio station broadcasting 1960s pop — they still reverb the hell out of everything (yes, including the drums), and they still have songs clocking in around a minute and a half or under. But here they are the exception rather than the rule. “Country Medicine” and “Low Kid” are two brief tunes that feature Donovan alone on acoustic guitar, but you never get the impression that they’re incomplete fragments: he just lets the songs do what they need to do and then checks out. Meanwhile, Donovan’s lyrics are largely inscrutable — and I’m guessing largely personal, referencing people and events the listener couldn’t possibly infer without context — but they often contain their own poetic logic, such as the lines that finish off the album: “It’s happening/ Or it’s not happening/ Or I’m dying on my feet/ I’m coming back for me again.”
Napa Asylum isn’t that imagined lo-fi/shitgaze ‘masterpiece,’ mainly because if it fits at all in that ill-defined genre, it does so uncomfortably. But perhaps I’ve set up a false dichotomy by comparing Sic Alps to other shitgaze bands. If we can get past recording equipment and sound quality for a moment and consider song craft and execution specifically, Sic Alps are clearly both miles ahead of and miles away from their peers. Napa Asylum only further proves this.