In my preparation for Radio Moscow’s second disc Brain Cycles, I popped in their first and self-titled release as a refresher. Radio Moscow’s first disc was long on nostalgia, but a straightforward interpretation of ‘70s rock. There were no holes punched in the sky artistically and this seemed to be okay and, quite possibly, the point. But in my newest listen I did not calculate my headphones already reverberating with Brain Cycles.
So there I am listing to track two, “Frustrating Sound”, from the band’s self-titled album while struggling to make sense of track one of their new disc Brain Cycles. Seriously, it took me a minute of fighting with the sound to realize that the two tracks were overlapping. I cannot help but think that Radio Moscow’s second album is an endless fight with overdubbed noise giving listeners little chance to hang on to melody and depth.
The Ames, Iowa, duo consisting of do-everything Parker Griggs (lead singer, all guitar parts, and percussion) and bassist Zach Anderson sounds like overworked parts, greasy to the touch. The music of Radio Moscow is mostly messy, giving listeners very little room to maneuver away from sound. There is little doubt that Radio Moscow wants a wall of sound, but throwback rock blues as a wall of sound is essentially mind numbing and blatantly obnoxious. At times a romp, trying to uncover that secret to the brilliance of Led Zeppelin II, Radio Moscow is a blatant attempt to recover to a time when rock really mattered. Although the band encourages me to listen to their new album “VERY high”, I must admit that I am of stable and sober mind. Maybe this is my problem?
I’m trying to find any room for negotiation between the tracks on Brain Cycles. Each sounds nearly the same and although there is room for throwback country-fair-infused rock; there is also a spot where artists could attempt to create some tension other than the fuzzy reverb of guitar riffs, fills, and pounding rhythm sections. Sounding like ‘70s rock is great; but the shtick is old after track three “The Escape”, it’s shared guitar parts bouncing between the ears, each reverberating off the other.
The problem is not talent, as there is a load of talent in Radio Moscow, but Brain Cycles is completely overworked. An enormous cache of bands currently survive on the rich sounds of the ‘70s, but unlike the White Stripes or the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club or Comets on Fire, Radio Moscow does little to promote itself above the initial surface as a garage band trying to sound like their dad’s or older brother’s record collection and now wants to be regarded as an artistic invention beyond their parts. Literally, 3:30 into the overindulgence of track four’s “No Good Woman” lead singer Parker Griggs croons, “I’m so tired of waiting on you.” And quite frankly, me too! Move on! Enough of the on-beat fill, the shrill voice, and the pagan drums fulfilling every rock god’s wettest dream!
The final guitar solo from “No Good Woman” bounces from ear to ear; disorienting as any I can remember. Like a brain surge, a rock and roll orgy of sound bounding from one ear to another; the equivalent of sucking down Mountain Dew syrup (and I know kids from my hometown who would give anything for a shot at sucking down that intoxicating citrusy syrup). This album and the breadth of Radio Moscow are designed strictly for those brave enough to try.
However, Radio Moscow’s Brain Cycles does not lead us down to the abyss of rock and roll antiquity without giving us a little nod to what is possible if they turn their guitars down a notch and dampen the double kick drums. The guitar parts in the track “Brain Cycles” are successful and the additional weight of special guest Justin “Blind Beard” Apple on organ provides the song a spice lacking up to this point on the album. The strong waft of straight blues banter is a nice break, and it proves that this band has the chops to blow minds with their sound, but these moments just cannot salvage an album long on rock cliché.
Quite frankly, Radio Moscow is at its best when they lower their sound, stop fiddling with their levels, and play straight blues-rock. The result isn’t groundbreaking, but the subtle guitar and balanced lyrical work breathes life into some of the better tracks on the album. A track like “250 Miles” is a great take on a traditional blues sequence, but the song is good in what it doesn’t try to do; the over layering of guitar parts and an overindulgence of drum fills do not haunt this track. Stripped and bare; the track subtly creates a nice symmetry; the sharing of vocal and guitar parts, evenly distribute the best track on the album. There is no overdub or layered track or bouncing reverb through my head; these tracks provide the listener space to enjoy the best from the band.
The track that makes the most sense on the entire album is “Black Boot”; a beautiful blues take with the appearance of a wonderful slide guitar part, a simple bass kick, and a handclap fill. Chiming in at 2:04, it’s far too short and much more necessary than half of the album. By the time the electric slide appears in “City Lights” the gig is up and the album is a tiring flail of more layered guitar parts. Maybe “City Lights” lyrics are apropos; “It just gets in the way” because I have recovered from an overabundance of guitar sound and the never-ending pounding of a rhythm section.
I really want to enjoy Radio Moscow and I believe a spot for their guitar banter exists, but what transpires throughout the album is more than the dull guitar riffs of banal throwback rock. The simple weight of the album’s cover art also works against anything redeeming. The clichéd rock album cover: drugs, long hair, rainbows, and brain cells. Hmmmm….which one is winning at the end of this listen? I cannot help to think of the bands that Radio Moscow has been compared to over their young career and how so many of them have discovered that music creation must end at some other spot than the music’s origin. Giving a simple nod to the past is necessary, but not at the price that Radio Moscow pays. At the end, rock that plays the straight man in the ‘rock nostalgia show’ get neither the reward nor the recognition of being stagnant while much of the rock community presses forward.
Radio Moscow’s Brain Cycles isn’t busting holes in the way to create rock sound. If you love classic guitar parts and blues-injected, Trans Am-driving rock, Radio Moscow is right up your road. In fact, you may fall in love with its fist-puming brand of rock. There is little subtle in anything the album attempts and I would assume that this is exactly what Radio Moscow wants: your ears to bleed, your mind to be warped, and your mom to yell “Turn that down!”