Cold Specks‘ debut album could not have been better named. I Predict A Graceful Expulsion was indeed graceful – there was a calm, a stillness at the heart of the record, with vocalist Al Spx’s wonderfully expressive voice providing a soul. There was a strange kind of tension to most of the songs, as if the titular expulsion was being pushed back underground. It was a record of mood and of atmosphere. Sadly, with the exception of lead single Holland, it didn’t feature that many memorable songs.
Part of the problem was the understandable decision to make Spx’s voice the focal point of the record – but as great a singer as she is, if there’s not much else going on underneath the surface, it’s hard to hold the attention if the songs aren’t that great. With the follow-up Neuroplasticity, Spx has tackled this head-on: while this probably won’t be blaring out of your local Top Shop anytime soon, this is a far more aggressive, unpredictable and frankly more interesting album than anyone could have predicted.
The most obvious influence on this change in direction is that of legendary US experimental noiseniks Swans – Spx sang on their last record To Be Kind, and Michael Gira repays the favour by guesting on two tracks on Neuroplasticity. His unmistakeable low growl on Exit Plan and A Season Of Doubt plays beautifully off Spx, and recalls other odd vocal matches like Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell, and Joanna Newsom‘s work with Bill Callaghan.
This influence isn’t just confined to the vocals however – there’s a nightmarish feel to much of Neuroplasticity from the shrieking horns of opening A Broken Memory, the tempo changes of the brilliant Bodies At Bay or, at its apex, the astonishing cacophony of sound that ebbs, flows and eventually explodes in the standout track Absisto. Throughout it all, Spx’s cool, calm voice makes a beautiful contrast with the chaotic sound underneath her: it’s no wonder that A Quiet Chill features her singing a chorus of “I remain unshakeable…”.
Gira’s first appearance on Exit Plan is also a highlight – the track itself starts off calm and laidback, before gradually building up into a maelstrom of sound on the somewhat doomy chorus: just the sound of Gira gravelly intoning “hung, drawn and quartered” is enough to give you nightmares. The relative lightness of the verses makes for a welcome sunny interlude, but this is a track that isn’t afraid to sound portentous and menacing. Gira reappears on the far gentler last track, A Season Of Doubt, a slightly jazzy number that features muted horns reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti‘s film soundtrack work with David Lynch.
It’s a knowingly ‘difficult’ album, one that takes effort to fully immerse yourself in, and one can’t help but wonder, one to deliberately steer Spx away from pigeonholing her into the ‘female singer/songwriter’ category. After all, any record that ends with the words “I’ve got an unrelenting desire to fall apart” isn’t one that’s desperate to be embraced by the mainstream any time soon.
Yet it’s this single-minded vision on display during Neuroplasticity that marks out Cold Specks as something special. Even if, at times, Spx seems in danger of being consumed by the musical chaos around her, it’s that very battle which makes this such a compelling listen. The grace is still there, but something far more engrossing has now been added to the mix.