Crystal Antlers have toured the US and Europe nine times. It shows. The Californians know their way around their instruments and – importantly – they know their way around the dynamic of the band, playing off each other with a biting unity. Phrases are dropped and re-appropriated, rhythms repeated and re-contextualised. There is an applaudable immediacy to “Two-Way Mirror”; you can feel the heaviness in the air, the sweat, the shifting bodies. But does that translate into a successful studio album?
“Two-Way Mirror” opens with “Jules Story”: a shimmering example of psychedelia infused noise-pop. Emerging from a bed of feedback, it’s pounded into existence by Kevin Stuart’s impressively assured drumming – switching time signatures with Dirty-Projectors-dexterity - before retreating back into hiss and fuzz. There’s a palpable excitement, a rising inflection that draws you from the bar to the dance-floor.
In terms of production, the sonic mist has cleared somewhat since “Tentacles”. The bare bones of the song-writing are more readily on show, particularly with the softening of Johnny Bell’s vocals and the driving addition of Cora Foxx on Organ. “Summer Solstice” for example, blossoms from feedback fuelled simplicity to a richly propulsive chorus. Like Sonic Youth with a sun-tan, or a gently rebellious Arcade Fire. Layer upon layer of building loveliness leading to the anthemic line “fade away”. The problem is it just does that; all too soon. This is true throughout “Two-Way Mirror” – bar the swaggeringly exultant “Dog Days” - most offerings hover around the three minute mark. This is prog-pop, chiselled into punk sized packaging. Although I am all for distillation, Crystal Antlers are militant in their extraction. Considering the complexity of textures on show, the pointed transience of tracks often leaves you unsatisfied. We are given snapshots of incredible sights, but without the journey it’s difficult to fully appreciate the view.
The sense of movement and travel carries through to the influences they embrace: Crystal Antlers have picked up a few new tricks on their adventures. Their fervent eclecticism has expanded. “Knee Deep” for example, nods to 70’s folk (albeit with a Ben Gibbard tinge to the vocals), whilst “Always Afraid” is underscored by frantic Free-Jazz discordance. Furthermore, “Fortune Telling” masterfully combines surf-rock yearning, with a doo wop chord progression. Like an alternative last dance at a high school prom – the outsiders have stormed the stage.
Crystal Antlers are an incredible live band and they have reaped the benefits of frequent tours: “Two-Way Mirror” is dynamic, responsive and engaging. However, it is not an incredible album. It feels fleeting. Although well executed – and a lot of fun - it needs more time to wrap its roots around your heart.