Coming off of a debut that was ambitious in its scope and in sound, Cymbals Eat Guitars left open considerable ambiguity as to what its follow-up could entail. Why There Are Mountains was a juvenile romp through the Midwest of indie rock-high points and low points, the lo-fi feedback of “This is What Dogs See,” the piano-driven melody of “Indiana” and a gut-check right off the bat in “…And the Hazy Sea.” With all of this packed into less than 45 minutes of raw debut material, where else could they go? I had whittled the possibilities into two options: either they would find a delicate balance between a more mature sensibility and the jaunty, exuberant pop melodies displayed on their debut-this would be neither better nor worse really, but potentially promising. Or they would crash and burn, attempting a nuanced notion of creativity with misguided and foolhardy confidence.
Within one listen, it becomes clear that Lenses Alien falls into the latter category. To put the listening experience into a timeline: after two minutes of melodic transmutations leading the group in a tiny circle of sound, it becomes background music. After five more minutes, the brain naturally checks back in: “Still going, huh?” Ten minutes later, not only are they still going, but now frustrated astonishment at the invariant sounds abounds. Time (x) continues to move, but any variables contributing to a dynamic sound (y) are static. The slope (m) remains at zero. Lenses Alien clocks out at 39:13 holding desperately onto their stalwart sounds of turn-of-the-century hard rock mixed with emo vocals.
It probably just sounds like I’m especially bitter about a band not living up to their first effort, that I set the expectations too high and formed an attachment to the debut that any follow-up likely could not contend with. But that’s not the case, and even if it were, I would be too proud to admit that Lenses Alien is not worth anybody’s time: Yet here I am, and no it isn’t.
Rather, Why There Are Mountains simply displayed sheer potential. Sure, Joseph D’Agostino sounded too much like Blink 182’s Tom DeLonge at certain points, and their flourishes weren’t always mature enough to match their grandiose ambition. But each song had its own atmosphere built with adventurous indie ethos pervading the record’s youthful, at times blinding, enthusiasm. Sharp ideas came to fruition around each turn, a new avenue to explore with every track. With Lenses Alien you get the feeling they were trying too hard, making it impossible for them to affect the listener the same way that carefree innocence did the first time around.
They attempt to ratchet up affectation through ham-fisted, bleak lyrics: “Well there are people who put dirty hypodermic needles / between the seat cushions in the movie theater” or “So maybe I’ve been sleeping less at your place since a man’s last panicked screams startled us awake.” Luckily the instrumentation is never so contrived. And at times you hear the remnants of a band that knows how to sculpt a melody into a dynamic song. The build-up in “Definite Darkness” is reminiscent of parts of “Wind Phoenix,” particularly the drums, and the opening riff of “Keep Me Waiting,” coming in on the half note to build suspense, is a faint reminder of the ear-opening opener to their last record. But aside from these fleeting recognitions of the past, the music doesn’t go anywhere. It’s all the same summation of guitars, a bass and a drum kit set to the same volume with sparse variation of distortion and pace. “Wavelengths” is a simple chord progression into a chorus with an eventual key change; it could’ve been written by the group of guys you went to high school with that everybody thought was going somewhere because they “sounded really tight” on stage.
This isn’t bitterness; it’s frustration at potential gone to seed. Lenses Alien is flat. Where their previous mountains of sound could leave the listener in awe of what they could do, and ramped anticipation of where they could go with their sound next, they laid down a derelict stripmall filled with juvenile delinquents. Drive through it once and you make sure to avoid this part of town next time.
Sloan – Smeared
Blitzen Trapper – Destroyer of the Void
Archers of Loaf – All the Nations Airports