To see a strong visual representation of the tension at the center of Ganser’s music, it’s best to watch one of the videos of the group performing at Chicago’s Empty Bottle last year. Vocalist/keyboardist Nadia Garofalo and guitarist Charlie Landsman radiate frantic energy, twisting and writhing their way through each song. Meanwhile, the rhythm section of bassist Alicia Gaines (who shares vocal duties with Garofalo) and drummer Brian Cundiff are focused, locked in, the picture of cool at the center of a tempest. Each half is an essential piece of Ganser’s taut, piercing sound, their grooves grounding an intensity in danger of spiraling out of control, and an unpredictability that makes their otherwise sharp and impeccably performed post-punk feel on the verge of genuine danger.
The Chicago quartet’s second album Just Look at That Sky is a refinement of each of the aspects that make Ganser’s darkly abstract approach to punk unique. While the abrasion of their debut Odd Talk hasn’t been filed down, it’s been given new shapes and richer textures, while the rhythmic tension remains the driving force, maintaining a consistently breathtaking urgency through their most otherworldly and accessible moments alike.
Immediacy is delivered in a disorienting manner in Ganser’s world, however, and Just Look at That Sky comes to life with a screech and a jolt in opening track “Lucky,” Garofalo offering only clipped, dispassionate phrases that feel like pieces of a shallow, surface-level conversation that grow gradually more incendiary. “Hell of a day, kid,” she chants in one moment. “Well, drink up sonny!” she sneers the next, the scenario turning strangely hostile. That sense of danger doesn’t stay hidden for long; Garofalo’s voice grows raw and frayed, and Landsman’s guitar is ready to draw blood.
Sometimes the mayhem and menace creeps up on you a little more slowly. At five and a half miutes, “Emergency Equipment and Exits” builds up more than enough real estate to give Ganser the space to explore the collision of textures and surfaces. It’s more hypnotic than aggressive, more subliminally sinister than outright antagonistic. There’s even a peculiar irony in Gaines declaring “Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts” earlier on in the song, only to return to a detached recitation of the phrase “It’s a long way down” in the song’s haunting minor-key coda. The violence is suggested rather than depicted so blatantly, but the chills are just as real.
Learning that the members of Ganser have a fondness for David Lynch, John Waters and The Residents upon hearing Just Look at That Sky only makes sense in hindsight, given the band’s masterfully peculiar manipulation of aesthetics. There comes a moment in nearly each of the nine songs here where the band seamlessly transitions away from a familiar landscape and indulges their most experimental, psychedelic tendencies. In the final minute of “Self Service,” a jerky Gang of Four-like scrape gives way to alien harmonic distortions. Halfway through “Shadowcasting,” the rhythm changes and Landsman introduces an eerie series of arpeggios, while the stunning closing track “Bags for Life,” which imagines the end of the world through social media voyeurism, employs a horn section to majestic effect. No matter where a Ganser song begins, it invariably ends somewhere interesting.
Discomfort and disorientation are essential pieces of Just Look at That Sky, two qualities it’s safe to say are nearly universally felt at this stage of 2020. Yet the agitation and darkness in Ganser’s songs have a relatability in their abstraction that would have cut just as deep pre-pandemic and pre-isolation. Which in a sense is comforting; nothing Ganser says or does necessarily assuages modern panic, but that’s hardly the point. If we can shake and jerk all the bad feelings, we’ll feel a lot better. For a little while.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.