The first genuinely bonkers moment on glass beach‘s sophomore album, plastic death, happens just before the five-minute mark in leadoff track “coelacanth.” A gorgeous piano waltz with ornate, progressive rock flourishes, it gradually picks up more layers of instrumentation as it rolls along—drums, synths and guitars in escalating levels of speed and intensity, acting as frantic counterpoint to J. McClendon’s sweetly serene vocals. A showcase of songwriting both ornate and graceful, only in its final 90 seconds or so does it erupt into an explosion of dizzying arpeggios, blasts of horns, and a sense that chaos could break out at any moment—were glass beach not in complete control of their orchestrated madness.
Glass beach’s 2020 debut, the matter-of-factly titled the first glass beach album, featured its share of similarly eye-popping moments in a somewhat different context. At the time, the Los Angeles band had catalyzed an eclectic mixture of indie pop and fourth-wave emo into a left-field, DIY success story. Eight months after self-releasing the album, Run for Cover reissued the eclectic and tricky-to-pin-down record, rife with charming, playful pop moments interspersed with unpredictable prog-rock detours. By contrast, plastic death is a prog album first and foremost, still as sprawling and unpredictable, but with a sense of direction and more pronounced proficiency that makes it feel more like a magnum opus than an anything-goes playground of inspired ideas and flights of fancy. It’s at once focused and pulled in countless directions; that sounds like an oxymoron, but glass beach’s muse follows a logical flight path, no matter how much of the map they might cover.
The product of a three-year process—its finished product engineered and mixed by the band, and mastered by Will Yip—plastic death was written, edited, sharpened and refined under the principle that it could only be a record that glass beach themselves could have made. What that sounds like in practice is an experience that’s equal parts intense, intricate and outsize in scope—a record, true to their stated goal, with few peers and even fewer potential direct comparisons to be made.
“The CIA,” the album’s first single, is a microcosm of plastic death‘s sprawl and imagination, captured in under five minutes and with a comfortable buffer at that. Spindly riffs, ominous basslines and cascades of synthesizer spiral into a vivid darkness as McClendon views a relationship through a carceral lens: “yeah you’re my panopticon/with your radar always on/empty cells in hollow dens/a reflection in your lens.” Naturally, another absolutely bonkers moment takes shape as the group escalates toward a climactic end, guitars squealing at piercing frequencies as the tension erupts into a manic sprint toward the finish line. It overwhelms, but never at the expense of letting each moment land, a sequence of dazzling moments vertically leapfrogging each other toward higher and higher stakes.
As plastic death showcases glass beach’s gains in both ambition and clarity, every potential high gains a bit of altitude. It’s hard not to marvel at the grandest moments on the album, as when the group show off the virtuosic instrumentation of “cul de sac” or the full-throttle prog-metal explosions in “slip under the door.” Yet there’s a refinement and beauty to some of the album’s subtler highlights, wherein the dark new wave textures of “whalefall” evoke The Police a bit more than they do Rush, and the restrained, acoustic strums of “the killer” suggest that, despite evidence to the contrary, glass beach understand as well as anyone the virtue of a less-is-more approach.
That glass beach began as a proggy emo band and then subsequently flipped that particular hybrid around doesn’t discount the degree to which aching, unfiltered feeling plays a role in their music. There’s no emo by numbers to be found on plastic death, if any of this scans as emo proper (which is debatable at best), but McClendon’s resonant vocals imbue an apocalyptic monolith like the nine-minute “commatose” with both wonder and anguish, reaching transcendent heights even at their most restrained. The beauty of a record like plastic death is that the restraint is always temporary; give them time to get there, and glass beach will prove just what kind of masterful bedlam they can stir up.
Label: Run for Cover
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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.