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This Month's Featured Review: Crystal Antlers EP

Recently signed to seminal indie label Touch and Go; Long Beach’s Crystal Antlers might be poised to break out in ‘09. Their October 7th self-titled EP release is a tightly wound experiment in melding no wave, hardcore, and psychedelia. Producer Ikie Owens (keyboardist for the Mars Volta) gives these songs lots echoey vim by mixing the cacophonous angst of Sonic Youth, the swirling art-rock of Jane’s Addiction, Black Flag’s harrowing intensity and the addled danger of 13th Floor Elevators.

Crystal Antlers is a maelstrom of feedback, strangled vocals and orchestrated chaos. Jonny Bell’s vocals growl and shriek through any number of effects and filters, which dissipate into the overall mix. His delivery is all fire and brimstone, belying a more melodic tone he only hints at occasionally on this record. Opener “Until the Sun Dies: Part 2” showcases some vocal range, allowing for a more dynamic soundscape. The best songs on the EP, like the seven minute “Parting Song For the Torn Sky”, allow the organs to create a sonic expanse. Drummer Kevin Stuart’s artful use of half-time signatures on a couple of the tracks reveals some jazz chops. A nice twist to Crystal Antlers sound is the added percussion delivered by Damian Edwards. His contribution to the mayhem provides some interesting texture to the songs. The EP can best be encapsulated as a frenzied freak out with artistic pretensions. Often the best riffs on the Crystal Antlers EP get cut off right at the point of being established. Andrew King’s guitar work anchors the sound firmly in the psych-rock realm. But unlike other guitar players in this genre he shies away from embracing the riff. This can be frustrating for the listener; it seems reactionary, as if this is what injects the “art” into the compositions. The mosaic created by the Crystal Antlers is a composite of shards of glass sharp enough to cut you, held in place by cement rough enough to scrape you. It will be interesting to watch which, if any, of the rough edges will be smoothed out on an upcoming full-length release.

Crystal Antlers have emerged out of the LA art collective The Smell - a club/art space of renown in Downtown LA - along with contemporaries No Age and Abe Vigoda. All these bands share a similar aesthetic, a kind of disjointed and angular approach to songwriting. These bands seem to suffer from musical ADD. A typical example of this is on the track “Vexation”, a punishing bombardment of pulverizing drums and blaring organs. But in service of what? The song blasts out of the speakers like a shotgun, but like a shotgun it sprays pellets everywhere with little or no accuracy. This is a fine effect maybe but not compelling enough to revisit on song after song. The upside for the Crystal Antlers is that there is no shortage of musical ideas on this EP. The question becomes will they have the patience and restraint to explore some of those ideas at length?

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