(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Recording review - California X, Nights in the Dark (2014)

Sensitive and evocative, wrapped in cathartic waves of thunder

California X protects their soft chewy center with bristling, metal shard guitars and rolling waves of thunder. Most of the songs on their latest offering, Nights in the Dark, are wrapped in barbed wire brambles of distortion that still let their vulnerability shine through. It's a standard formula that hordes of emo bands have followed, but to their credit, frontman Lemmy Gurtowski and his crew never get depressed enough to slip into whiny self-indulgence. Even better, this latest release is a major step forward in defining the band's sound. On their eponymous debut, California X drew comparisons to their more famous Amherst big brother, Dinosaur Jr. They've still got the thick tarry fuzz, but the songs never descend into the apathetic catharsis that J Mascis is so adept at. Instead, California X stretches out and adds some low-fi post-rock reminiscent of bands like Trail of Dead, as well as some nicely honed metal chops.

The echoing rumbles of ragged guitar kicking off the title song give the album a good start, but the band really hits their stride with the fourth track, "Hadley, MA". The preceding tune, "Ayla's Song", breaks the flow of cotton-wrapped, raging amps with an evocative fingerstyle acoustic guitar, That piece ends abruptly with a brief bro comment, "Cool", and then "Hadley, MA" brings back the throbbing distorted tones, but the transition flows naturally because the the melodic riff ties back to the previous song's tonal center and phrasing even as the production contrasts so strongly. The slow grinding rhythm creates a fraught emotional space, but the arrangement is flexible and allows for some strong dynamic shifts. In particular, the drop-back for the vocals on the verses lets them stand out cleanly and emphasizes the growing intensity of the chorus. It's easy to sink into this song and be buffeted by the noise.

This in turn sets up the dual tracks of "Blackrazor", with part one offering a post-rock flavored slow-core metal grind. Like an implacable fate, the song rolls out darkly with occasional rhythmic stutters. The massive crush of bass and guitar chords lays the foundation for a fluttering lead guitar that strains against the boundaries of the song, like Robin Trower jamming over Black Sabbath. Moving on to part two, California X sets up a faster metal punch that immediately suggests Motörhead with choppy guitar, pounding drums, and righteous bass drive. Thankfully, the vocals never attempt Lemmy's growl (Kilmister, that is), but the head banging energy is perfect. Running almost seven minutes, this part gives the band plenty of room to drag out the jam, with tight harmonized leads that show off their technical chops. While California X doesn't really position themselves as metalheads, these tracks extend their range while maintaining a consistently loud and cathartic sound.

It's easy to find minor gripes with Nights in the Dark: the unbalanced tone and muted highs wear a little thin and a couple more songs would be nice. But it's a strong sophomore effort that clearly refutes critics who heard too much Dinosaur Jr. in their debut release. Savor the noise and find your way to the center.

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