Crystal Antlers definitely know something about cruel twists of fate: The Long Beach neo-psychedelic band holds the dubious distinction—or high honor, depending on how you look at it—of having the last new record in the Touch and Go catalog to its name, its 2009 debut Tentacles released around the time that the venerable indie imprint underwent a drastic downsizing. While you’d be hard-pressed to say that bad luck dampened the group’s creative energies, it’s also tough to argue that the upheaval didn’t negatively impact the critical acclaim and commercial possibilities that were building up for the buzzed-about band.
But in the case of Crystal Antlers, you could say what doesn’t break up your band only makes you stronger, because how much more do have to lose after you’ve endured revolving-door lineups and the once legendary label you’re on shuts down for new business after what could’ve been your breakthrough effort? Perhaps it’s reading too much into things, but Crystal Antlers’ self-released sophomore effort Two-Way Mirror sounds like the work of a group that’s made it through to the other side, taking stock of where it’s been without letting that get in the way of where they’re going. At its best, Two-Way Mirror shows the band’s confidence in sticking to its brand of relentless, dizzying psychedelic rock, even while pushing it in new directions: From the very start, the quintet plays to its strengths, launching into a controlled burn of searing, densely melodic garage rock on the opener “Jules’ Story”, which molds propulsive percussion, shaggy riffs, and Jonny Bell’s unruly vocals into something with a bit of shape and structure. Reining in their energies just enough and channeling them into sharper, more focused songs, Crystal Antlers revisit retro genres they’ve mined before with the semi-bluesy guitar lines of “By the Sawkill” and the doo-woppy “Fortune Teller”, but they do so with a greater feel for texture and contrast.
Indeed, the best way to measure the band’s growth on Two-Way Mirror is in the details, in the nuances and subtle touches that are noticeable even in soundscapes that are so rambunctious and intimidating. Just check out, for instance, how Crystal Antlers bring in a neo-no-wave dimension that adds flair and drama to complement their muscular, overdriven psych-rock guitars on some of the new album’s best tracks, like the angular Blonde Redhead-like strumming on “Seance” and the sleek, Yeah Yeah Yeahs dynamics of “Summer Solstice”. But Crystal Antlers’ artistically adventurous streak really comes to a head on the ambitious coda, “Dog Days”, which releases all the compressed sounds and pent-up energy on an expansive canvas that gives them more room to breathe and explore. A thrilling rollercoaster ride of styles and tempos, “Dog Days” starts with a swaying, almost classic rock intro that picks up pace and intensity soon enough, as Bell’s vocals come off as insistently tuneful as ever accompanied by a melodic guitar solo that splits the difference between Dinosaur Jr. and Built to Spill. More than anything else on the album, Crystal Antlers aren’t just piling a beefy riff on top of crackling distortion over Doors-y keyboards, but really stretching themselves into doing something more.
Nonetheless, Two-Way Mirror can sometimes feel like a work-in-progress, either due to natural growing pains or because this is a band that’s still getting past the past. On the whole, Two-Way Mirror is a little uneven, since some of the qualities that account for its best moments also tend to hamstring Crystal Antlers on others. At times, they go to the same well a few too many times; so while the title track and “Almost Afraid” are good enough exercises in what Crystal Antlers do best, these tracks ultimately come off as redundant as relentless, lacking the novelty to maintain the album’s momentum all the way through. And while following their intuition and going with the flow usually pays off for Crystal Antlers on Two-Way Mirror, not all of their attempts at experimentation and variety have a clear sense of purpose, particularly the noodling interludes “Sun-Bleached” and “Way Out”.
Still, if any band can be given some slack for its overindulgences as it continues to forge its own identity, it would be Crystal Antlers. Considering all the trials and tribulations, Crystal Antlers can definitely look themselves in the, um, mirror with Two-Way Mirror and feel good about where they are and where they’re still headed.