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Crystal Antlers
Two Way Mirror Barnaby Smith , August 2nd, 2011 13:55

Not so long ago, Crystal Antlers were a fascinating new band, the latest in the line of palpably uncategorisable groups from Long Beach, California (others being Black Flag and the Minutemen, of course). In 2008 they emerged for the first time with their eponymous, limited edition debut EP, a six-song affair that was probably the best in the format to be released that year. Crystal Antlers were a deeply original proposition, marrying the wilder moments of the MC5 with Safe As Milk-era Captain Beefheart in a messy, confused but often-brilliant noise. They appeared in equal parts songwriters and improvisers, poets and punks, and it helped that they were superb live. That was three years ago.

In early 2009 they released their debut album Tentacles, which proved to be a slightly unsatisfactory thing. It felt like they had used up all their A-grade material on that EP and were concentrating on their mere sound, rather than able to come up with such feverishly melodic tracks as ‘A Thousand Eyes’ or ‘Parting Sorrow For The Torn Sky’. They had stacked their EP with gems and left nothing for their first long-player.

But now after two years away – a time that has been spent rejigging their line-up and recording in a barn in Mexico – they have rediscovered what made them so absorbing prior to Tentacles. Two Way Mirror, while only a mild stylistic turning point, contains the remarkable energy and impassioned sincerity of their early days.

One immediately clear difference between Two Way Mirror and previous Crystal Antlers work is the fact the band, led by vocalist and bass player Jonny Bell, have improved immeasurably as musicians. This is apparent on opener ‘Jules’ Story’, with changes of pace and a precisely repetitive guitar line that ensures the band no longer have any trace of that high-school-garage-band feel they (not unattractively) once had.

Even more surprising is the very fine ‘Summer Solstice’, which goes through phases of organ, feedback-laden guitar and some uncharacteristically restrained singing from Bell before some even more uncharacteristic acoustic guitar. While some tracks here are short and brutal in the spirit of some of their punk influences, songs like this prove Crystal Antlers are also capable of thinking long and hard about what directions their strange sound can take within the confines of the three to four minutes they usually limit themselves to. Thankfully, that increased instrumental expertise has not dulled their powerful primitivism, which remains best expressed by Bell’s usual screaming vocals on most of the other tracks here.

They have proved themselves as scholars capable of deliberation as well as savages then, and when you consider the fact that Crystal Antlers’ devotion to Beefheart remains as strong as ever - ‘Always Afraid’ has passages of saxophone that are more earnest incarnations of Van Vliet’s tendencies - it is clear Crystal Antlers have certainly been able to balance all the disparate elements of their countless reference points into one balanced whole.

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of Two Way Mirror though, is that it is perfectly paced – something they have struggled with in the past. Unlike Tentacles there are no dragging album tracks, nor the germs of unfulfilled promising ideas. Final track ‘Dog Days’ is an unequivocal triumph at nearly seven minutes long. Here they have Neil Young, Television and Talking Heads on a plate, complementing their typically unhinged instrumental space-rock oddness. There are even some fairly predictable chord changes. Crystal Antlers have added conventional traits to a sound that was already highly refreshing in the way that autodidactic art usually is, and are all the more innovative for it.

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