Portland noise-rock maestros Eat Skull have been fuzzing it out since their 2008 debut, Sick to Death, but on their third album—the aptly named III—the fuzz is leavened with a distinctly pop sensibility. This might not sit well with longtime fans, or with listeners of a purist persuasion, but many others are likely to enjoy what they hear. Time will tell whether this augers a new direction for the band or if it’s just a momentary detour, but for the time being at least, the results are promising. If the band is striving to reach a wider audience, it seems likely that they will succeed.
Lead track “Space Academy” asserts this weird mix of lo-fi sound, garage-level musicianship and unerring pop sensibility. Singer Rob Enbom’s voice strains to hit the high notes when it isn’t getting lost in the mix of fuzz guitar crunch and droning bass. But there’s a sweet acoustic guitar strum buried in there as well, and Enbom’s voice carries a kind of defiant wistfulness that recalls Exile on Main Street-era Jagger. The tune has room to breathe, too: at almost five minutes, it’s one of the longer offerings on the album, as well as one of the most satisfying.
The rest of the album is a mixed bag, displaying that tension between noise and melodiousness to occasional good effect but also, it must be said, with a certain sameness that grows monotonous over the length of the record. “How Do I Know When to Say Goodnight” veers between vocal strangeness and a straightforward pop vibe, while the two minute “Your Hate” is another surprisingly melodic offering, albeit one whose melody is buried beneath layers of guitars, reverb, and effects.
This is the modus operandi of Eat Skull, at least on this record: construct a batch of simple pop tunes and then layer them up with enough distortion and effects to mask—almost—their conventionality. The tinkling guitars of “How Do I Know…” and the swirling flutes (I think they’re flutes; they might be synthesizers) of “Two Sikk Moons” are effective in adding layers of sonic interference; with so much going on in the foreground, the listener is apt to be less aware of the underlying simplicity of the material.
More interesting than this, perhaps, is the downtempo “Stupid Moon”, which manages to incorporate an ominous dirge into the formula, resulting in a genuinely creepy listening experience. Here, though, the limitations of Enbom’s voice become apparent; reedy and raw, it’s far more effective in conveying some emotions than others. A song like “Stupid Moon” would benefit from some Nick Cave-style gravitas, which is nowhere to be found here.
Album closer “Catch Em Before They Vanish” is III‘s other slow tune and another change-up, kicking off as it does with sitar before a segue into the band’s comfort zone: strummed acoustic guitar, layers of distortion, thudding drums, shaky vocals. It’s a good song, maybe one of the best on the album, but by this time the listener has heard this trick a few times already. There is a consistency to the album that is both its strength and its weakness. That said, it will be interesting to see where the band goes next. With a bit more variation in the mix, Eat Skull could evolve into something truly surprising.
// Notes from the Road
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