Styles: noise rock, "anti-rock", no wave, punk.
Others: Lake of Dracula, XBXRX, Lydia Lunch, U.S. Maple, Talk Normal.
Of all the bands that litter this tired planet, you might be forgiven for assuming that Cellular Chaos are one of the last who could be flagged up as posters boys and girls for what it is to play rock music. Maybe you’d be right, not least because they were listed under the suitably militant category of “anti-rock” on ugEXPLODE’s now dormant store, and not least because every sound they’ve wrung out of their instruments since their inception in 2011 has been stubbornly discordant and obstreperous, a probably willful attempt to negate everything that the puppeteered archaism of “rock” now foists on the mainstream of its audience. Given a cursory listen to their debut album, you’d possibly continue in this view, what with all the superficial corroboration you’d receive from the album’s scattershot cacophony of electrocuted guitars, belligerent drumwork, and strangled vocals, all thrown together into asymmetrical songs that spurn melody for staccato dissonance, and then jilt pentatonic leads for volatile riffage. And yet, having said all this, from a certain perspective, Cellular Chaos unfolds as rock music in its purest and most essential form. It may sound nothing like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or Nirvana, but at its turbulent core, it distills all of the sublimated energy and frustration, the disaffected rancor and idealism, that throughout the years has induced countless people into picking up an instrument and throwing themselves around a stage in the symbolic rejection of everything that’s been pissing them off recently. In fact, the album is little else besides “core,” and its inversions or often wholesale stripping away of rock platitudes only heightens its assault on what remains, which in this case is as good an album of noise rock or no wave as you’re likely to hear in the next 12 months.
Much of the Weasel Walter canon has been similarly fascinated with this cavalier dismantling/reconstruction of once radical but now caricatured genres, and if Cellular Chaos bears an occasional resemblance to any one previous Walter band it’s Lake of Dracula, which also featured the normally stool-bound Brooklynite on guitar and which positioned itself as a kind of furiously squalid mirror-image or alter-ego to the tragedies of co-opted rock and punk. But even though there are noticeable parallels in the semi-industrial textures he cajoles from his amp and the general contempt for bloated inefficiency and ornamentation, Cellular Chaos are arguably a much more dynamic and interesting band than the unapologetically primitive Lake of Dracula ever were. Not only is there more going on during the average Cellular Chaos cut, but tracks like opener “Smothering Instinct” and its successor “Barely Regal” are conspicuously more frenetic and intense than most of the LoD back catalogue. The former employs a pounding, almost mechanized rhythm as it hammers itself out of some figurative cage, chopping from an obstinate 14/8 to an elusive 4/4 meter as frontwoman “Admiral Grey” — in a vocal timbre and register that is itself somewhere close to being perversely childlike — keens about how she may or may not have committed infanticide, more or less in parallel to how the whole band would like to kill off the malnourished, underdeveloped baby of rock itself.
At the end of “Smothering Instinct,” she whelps, “It was all that I could do/ For controlling it,” and it’s this theme of control, or rather the lack of it, that recurs at various intersections throughout the record, not just in its lyrics but also in the sometimes erratic and anti-confluential composition of its songs. Indeed, if anything, Cellular Chaos is music of and for a certain kind of neurotic, someone who’s lost power over their lives and therefore pursues a semblance or token of control in both impulsive and compulsive acts. For the bulk of its songs, the M.O. is a division between antsy, agitated repetition and flights of unbridled violence, of a catharsis that splinters eardrums and yet doesn’t ever purge its host of the future need for its reproduction. Accordingly, the emetic “Our War” veers between narrow corridors of staccato chord-play and torrents of highly disgruntled thrashing, while the mercurial “Adviser” pillows lower-end charges of distortion on top of each other before ratcheting itself into a headlong flurry of higher-end guitar notes. If this doesn’t sound too impressive in writing, it should be added that everything is made vastly more persuasive by the potent yet unshowy musicianship through which these splenetic gushes of sound are filtered, with Marc Edwards’ drumming in particular adding the sinewy drive and momentum that continues to fling the songs forward whenever Walter’s radioactive guitar would threaten to dissolve them in their tracks.
But for all this energized abrasion and its stop-start hysterics, not to mention its fervor for stripping guitar-based music down to raw constituents, it’s surprising that so much of the album is subliminally catchy and memorable in its own improbable way, and it’s this oblique catchiness more than anything else that supports the idea that the band hasn’t at all set itself in diametrical opposition to rock music as such, but rather has set out to amplify its most vital and insurgent qualities. A good portion of this follows from the vocals of Admiral Grey, a classically trained singer whose ragamuffin hoots and chants often act as the more tightly patterned counterpoint to her band’s persistently unhinged invective. On “Border Patrol,” she sings her opening lines in an urgent moan, sounding somewhere in the region of a Siouxsie Sioux who’s been administered a steady diet of helium and high-fructose corn syrup. Often she’ll whip herself into a state of anxious frenzy (as with the song’s “chorus”), but even in these instances, she’ll maintain a pulse and shape for her rancid lullabies, rather than spiral into free-form raving and blubbering, which probably would’ve been a temptation for lesser vocalists in the same rancorous context.
And moreover, there are still moments without her input where the band itself coalesces on some slanted or diffuse hook. For example, at around the one-minute point of “Chinese New Year,” Walter’s guitar centers itself on a slow, stalking, anticipatory riff that — doubled by Kelly Moran’s hard-edged bass — becomes the nearly personable undertow for a characteristically vitriolic splurge of tremolo picking. Similarly on “Cutter,” a recoiling, elasticated cycle of distorted notes purposefully breaks out of the stuttering confusion to endow the track with a sneering, concussive face, in the process condensing and refracting the perfidious veneer of rock & roll into something more in keeping with the debased madness of our times.
So somehow, perhaps by the sheer force of will alone, Cellular Chaos are able to transform these kinds of outbursts into figures that are more distinctive and enduring than they have any right to be. And, ultimately, even in those not infrequent moments when they are engaging in harmonization and actually playing what could loosely be called a “tune,” it’s this idiosyncratic fervor that makes the album what it is, and at bottom makes it such a pure and unpretentious rock record. And if nothing else, this leads us to hope that more bands will learn the lesson that Cellular Chaos has to teach them in its own intractable way, and eventually understand that punk and rock are more states of being than any particular set of tired conventions.
01. Smothering Instinct
02. Barely Regal
04. Our War
06. Waves of Fear
08. Border Patrol
10. Del Ghosto
11. Chinese New Year