One of the holy trinity of similarly-monikered bands-of-the-moment (the other two being Crystal Castles and Crystal Stilts – and that’s before we get to Crystal Fighters), Crystal Antlers released a self-titled (and originally self-released, until picked up by Touch and Go Records) EP to much critical acclaim back in the early part of 2008. This full-length album, their first, has thus been the subject of much fervent expectation in some quarters. Does it fulfil the high hopes?
The main elements on display are psych, punk, blues and drone. Often coming off like the great lost Nuggets band (think ’60s misfits like Electric Prunes or Thirteenth Floor Elevators, or more modern adherents like Reigning Sound or Jay Reatard), the psychedelia is ramped up with liberal use of the Hammond organ (from the frantic opening arpeggios of Painless Sleep, to the concise demarcating chords in Dust, to the tuneful deployment in Swollen Sky). A strong bluesy influence can be heard on the slower, more impassioned tracks, particularly the rather lovely Andrew: four tracks in, and the first song that really sounds meant.
Elsewhere the punk element comes more to the fore, notably with the feedback and tinkle of smashing glass at the end of Time Erased, the frenetic pace of Tentacles and the shouty vocal in Your Spears. Quite distinct from any other track on the album (and perhaps the better for it) is Vapor Trail, an instrumental number, all hypnotic drones and trippy cymbal noises. Very Sunburned Hand Of The Man, and very beguiling.
However, there are two main aspects to the Crystal Antlers’ sound that become wearisome after a few listens. The first is the vocal style and delivery of singer Johnny Bell. He has a sort of on-one-level gruff wail of a voice, which becomes strangely inexpressive over the course of the whole album.
It is a voice that is certainly distinctive, but not one in which it’s easy to uncover much emotional range. Similarly, he band’s technique of cramming most songs until they are chock-full of so many different sounds (electronic bleeps + organ arpeggios + squally guitar + bluesy guitar + brass + vocals + “busy” drumming, all at equal level in the mix) becomes problematic.
Particularly on tracks such as Dust,Time Erased, Memorized, Glacier and Your Spears, the cumulative effect of this is in creating a kind of aural sludge – in much the same way that mixing lots of lovely bright colourful paints will merely result in a dull sort of grey.
This is a great shame, as all the obvious influences on display here would seem to signpost something much more exciting, invigorating and heartfelt. Hoping to encounter some of this around every “next corner”, excitement and invigoration levels actually decline the longer the album rolled on.
In short, then, apart from the nice flourishes and an undoubtedly authentic-sounding replication of mid- to late-’60s underground psychedelia, this album seems to have been something of a misfire, lacking a convincing emotional undertow, or sufficient clarity in its musical presentation to engage or entrance the listener.