Portland’s Lithics take the idea of post-punk to a mangled, deconstructed extreme. The elements of a punk or post-punk song as we might recognize them are all present on their third album, Tower of Age, but they don’t all necessarily behave the way we might expect them to. Melodies prove elusive. Hooks are fleeting. Aubrey Hornor’s vocals are cold, detached, sharp and focused but devoid of rage or rancor or sadness—she’s a stoic narrator to what often sounds like the concept of music itself completely falling apart.
It’s a lot more fun than it might seem on paper. The way Lithics dismantle the traditional tropes of punk feels in part like what hearing Gang of Four must have felt like in the late ’70s—alien, abrasive, peculiar, but captivating all the same. On Tower of Age, the band strips back post-punk to stark, skeletal arrangements that more often emphasize the incongruities or distance between instruments rather than the ways in which they layer and lock together. Hell, some of these are barely even songs; opener “Non” has a start-stop rhythm that almost feels like the band hitting reset at the beginning of each verse, while “A Highly Textured Ceiling” briefly rides a groove before disintegrating into a wobbly guitar squeal. And “Snake Tattoo” is little more than a reading of the song’s title with a strange, almost non-musical loop.
For as much abstract, negative space as Lithics inject into the 34 minutes of Tower of Age, what they build around it can be a lot of fun, danceable, even catchy in sparing doses. The twitchy groove and guitar chimes of “Hands” come together in weird-disco harmony, an expressionist anthem that shows how the success of a great dancepunk anthem often lies in its simplicity—and its furious climaxes. There’s a similarly driving sensibility to “Victim’s Jacket,” a deep groove in constant tension with atonality, and “Tower of Age,” which is practically maximalist by Lithics’ standards, its polyrhythmic parts all overlapping and leaping past one another. What ultimately keeps every song solid and well structured is the band’s rhythm section, bassist Bob Desaulniers and drummer Wiley Hickson, whose grooves are solid enough to keep even the most bonkers of Lithics’ songs from completely collapsing.
To go back to the fun part for a minute, however, the idea that these songs could completely lose their structural integrity at any given moment is, in fact, part of the thrill. Though pop music, and by extension punk, is founded on ideas of structure and predictability, Lithics don’t seem all that interested in subscribing to such notions. They’re painting outside of the lines, right off the canvas.
Label: Trouble in Mind