Accessibility doesn’t always equal quality, the same way inaccessibility doesn’t have to mean a record’s crap. Take, for example, some of the best albums from 2009 thus far, such as Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion and Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest. Both have their fair share of difficult listening, both essentially insist upon multiple listens, and both get better with wear. In the case of California’s Crystal Antlers debut album Tentacles, it all but certainly will require two or three spins from its listeners for a fair take; they just shouldn’t expect it to get any better each time.
From the very beginning of the record, the sound is enticing. Whirling organ arpeggios meet up with frantic guitars on “Painless Sleep” for a pleasant instrumental. But it’s from here that the “pleasant” ends and the “indifferent” begins. The same organ kicks off “Dust”, playing 4/4 chords leading up to Johnny Bell’s unique brand of vocals, which seem to be one part screamo, one part Weird Al Kurt Cobain parody. (“It’s hard to bargle nawdle zouss(?)/With all these marbles in my mouth”). After a while it’s easy lose track of where you are on the album, as each song follows the same basic raw formula of organ, guitars, drums and shrieking.
No disrespect to the group, there’s a lot of emotion and intensity behind their music. And for all the repetition and otherwise plebeian moments the record has to offer, it has some bright spots. Along with the opener, title track and “Swollen Sky”, a nice change-of-pacer with more melody and heart than the rest of the album combined, Crystal Antlers do seem to have promise. At this point, however, it remains to be seen what is there to get emotional about. Is all this aggression and energy just for the sake of aggression and energy?
More than anything, Crystal Antlers need to find their collective voice. With a solid EP and good live shows, there’s plenty of evidenced talent in the group, not to mention they have enthusiasm to spare, something that bands can’t fake. This just makes Tentacles all the more disappointing. Ultimately, it’s boring, and doesn’t provide a lot of motivation for any significant rotation, other than a couple listens to try and pick apart the sounds. And maybe to try and figure out what Johnny Bell is singing about.