Guerilla Toss Twisted Crystal

[DFA; 2018]

Styles: new wave, synth pop, hyper pop, cyber punk
Others: Plastics, Birthing Hips, Devo, Fire-Toolz, Machine Girl, Gang of Four, Grace Jones, Crying, Laurie Anderson

Doubling down on the move toward cleaned-up, synthy, punky, hyperactive pop music that they had established with last year’s GT ULTRA, Guerilla Toss return with the more confidently playful, more vibrant, and somewhat more convincing release that is Twisted Crystal. If the band maintains pace with their output and continues their inert but gradual motion into new territory (this is their third full-length in a row released with little more than a year in between), we can stay hopeful for what’s to come. But right now, I feel like an onlooker peeking in on a process, waiting for something of greater coherence and vision.

On Twisted Crystal, it’s a more caricatured form of this post-industrial psychedelic new wave. Melodic writing feels more crucial here than it has been for the band in the past. Playful, often simple hooks bounce off of counterpoint lines in the guitar and synth, strengthening singer Kassie Carlson’s presence as the lead in their work. For me, her schoolyard melodies are often reminiscent of the more decidedly immature inclinations of early Brian Eno or Talking Heads, such as the nee-ner-nee-ner taunt of “Jesus Rabbit,” the hazardous chromaticism and sudden leaps of “Hacking Machine,” and the onomatopoetic ascending scale run that serves as the hook to “Come Up With Me” (this one is opened by a playful riff that, for a moment, places them next to big-league DIY compatriots and rock revivalists Sheer Mag, A Giant Dog, Diarrhea Planet, and Hank Wood & The Hammerheads). Atop of this bouncing, melodic genre pastiche, Carlson alternately borrows the surreal and hazy distance of disco and yé-yé in her vocal affect, especially notable on “Retreat” and “Jackie’s Daughter.”

Throughout, Carlson’s voice is clearer here, and although it is more mildly delivered, the control allows a character to emerge. Liner notes point to Grace Jones as an inspiration for Carlson’s vocal delivery. I don’t think I would have made that connection myself, but it is fairly noticeable in her spoken word cadence. This connection got me thinking about the band’s relation to the camp aesthetic that Jones utilized in her own work. Sianne Ngai (a theorist I think about too often) has shown how zany aesthetics are both a result and an expression of our experiences under late capitalism (Ngai’s primary examples are the buzzing antics of Lucille Ball and the creepily compulsive nature of Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy; I personally turned to Ngai’s thoughts about zaniness to better understand the work of Kero Kero Bonito for this site). New wave pop icons of postmodernism such as Grace Jones, Paul Reubens, George Michaels, Laurie Anderson, Devo, and Prince took advantage of the suddenly prominent vibrant kitsch aesthetic that new wave brought forth, queering popular culture and/or offering subtle critiques of mass consumerism.

It’s hard to locate any such critique in Guerilla Toss, but it feels like a worthwhile and important territory that they may be on the verge of stepping into. Here I see Carlson’s performance identity holding serious potential for further conceptual development both lyrically and visually. The video for “Meteorological,” for instance, draws on the De-Evolutionist lyrics of the song (“I want to be natural/ Meteorological”) to conjure Carlson at the center of a weather forecast bit with a Cindy Sherman bent. The resulting video relies heavily on visual tropes of certain political art styles (camp aesthetics, visibly low-budget visual effects, cyber-culture insignia) without the thematic content to substantiate it.

In a similar way, Guerilla Toss seem to be making a lot of noise — and perhaps reigning it in to permit themselves a larger platform — but their left-of-center aesthetics signal a political core that isn’t delivered upon and may not actually exist. They’ve left the cutting edge musically, which can have valuable results, but here it feels ambivalent and a little tidy. It comes off as a somewhat glib contribution to the strange and nebulous contemporary realm of cyber punk. It’s new and inventive, but less inspiring than what the band has delivered in the past and less exciting than the artists who have picked up what Guerilla Toss dropped when exiting the avant-garde. Current projects like Kero Kero Bonito, Palberta, Machinegirl, Crying, Birthing Hips, Fire-Toolz, and Downtown Boys all utilize a similar vocabulary to that of Guerilla Toss (many of these artist seem to be progenitors in some way of Guerilla Toss in the first place) and carry that lexicon to new radical formations in both sound and content. I’m keeping hopeful that Guerilla Toss push to formalize their wandering and present a record with the energy and impact of their live shows. Until then, Twisted Crystal.

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