3 out of 5
Label: Skin Graft Records
Produced by: John Miller (recorded and mixed by)
I feel like Gay Beast’s press blurb gets a bit out ahead of them, proclaiming the band as having been received as “too weird” for being a “gay band” and “too gay” for being a noise-rock band. Now, true, I don’t really know what qualifies a “gay band” beyond, perhaps, having gay members, or singing about representational themes, but I’m not certain how genre would disqualify a group; similarly, noise-rock is… pretty broad, and I haven’t sensed any particular affinity for sexual orientation in the scene. Which isn’t to suggest Gay Beast didn’t receive such feedback, and the narrow-mindedness of the reactions does align with that same blurb stating that the band formed as a reaction to Midwest passive-aggressiveness – so maybe we’re talking about the gay band / noise-rock scene (?) in Missouri from which the band was excluded – but either way, this all sets up GB to be the kinda something that just doesn’t fit in. …Making Skin Graft a fitting home, true, but also, for better or worse, setting up some expectations as to the (potential) wild-ness of their sound.
To Smithereens can get pretty wild, especially towards the album’s latter half, and its Microwaves / Arab on Radar herky-jerk electro rock definitely puts it in league with some SG labelmates, but it feels like even the group gets caught up in those blurb-encouraged expectations, as the overall sound gets caught between trying to be noisy, trying to be relevant, trying to be poppy, and maybe then giving it all a digital production wash to further mystify intentions. That last bit, which renders vocals down to a flat, Devo-esque buzz, and oftentimes minimizes the impact of some of the cool tonal shifts that happen, is the main culprit in holding To Smithereens back: many songs are structured around Daniel Luedtke’s vocals, but their annunciation and emotion isn’t quite strong or bold enough to draw attention to the lyrics, rendering those stretches of singing as, unfortunately, rather mindless, when it’s suspected that there are things being said worth listening to. Better is when a concept is boiled down to a chorus – such as on the excellently angry We Keep Our Victims Ready – which makes the singing more a component of the music and song. Logically, this also allows the group to break out more, not limited to the fringes of a verse-chorus-verse structure, which gets us more to a notable sound that’s both anarchic and poppy – time changes and drilling drumming married to funky horns and harsh but catchy guitar lines.
I’m not sure if I can “solve” the formula of Gay Beast, determining what’s best to have pushed them over the line into more of a standout album, but I definitely wouldn’t have kicked them out of my gay / noise club, because every track on here offers enough chops to encourage hearing more, which eventually blossoms into a truly badass closing few tracks.
Side note: this review was written based off of listening to the album digitally, on headphones. I just went through the record on vinyl, and I must say: whether because I had expectations set, or the medium was just better suited, so many more sounds and levels landed. The review still stands, but I’d say vinyl is the preferred way to go on this.