For a reviewer, Calla almost—but never quite—makes a pigeon-hole a natural thing. Now on their fifth album, the Brooklyn band has perfected a swirling, complex desperation couched in conventional angst-rock. For a few albums now, in the studio Calla has come across as all coiled power, remarkably well contained. And Strength in Numbers is nothing different—for someone new to the band, a perfect entry point; for a seasoned Calla fan, a welcome expansion.
Here, as throughout the band’s catalogue, Calla establishes early that they know how to use noise, but not to rely on it. This is a great thing, because too often it’s the noise-as-emotional-punch thing makes mainstream rock so predictable. At this point it’s possible to outline a prototypical Calla song: unexpected hush over ominous percussion, effects pedal working overtime, and Aurelio Valle’s strained voice. A more conventional band would follow these acoustic introductions with exploded distortion, but Calla works in the opposite direction, building up atmosphere to breaking point. It’s become quite characteristic, and certainly effective.
Still, the ghosts of many other bands inform Calla’s guitar-based sound and Valle’s angsty vocals. First and foremost, this music couldn’t have been possible without The Bends, and in its more histrionic moments the band also reminds of Muse, though the singer continually resists the temptation to go theatrical, thankfully. “Simone”, one of the more upbeat songs that have been floating around the blogs for a few months, is most derivative of Radiohead, “Sanctify”‘s darkly romantic groove is in the style of a band like Tool, and “Bronson”, a Cold War Kids-esque rocker, churns ahead with a familiar, but still enjoyable stomp.
It’s useful to think of Calla’s music in terms of an American idea of rock. There seems to be a spirit of the American West flowing through Calla’s music, which is only to say that, as on “Stand Paralyzed”, the band has nailed a sort of breezy complexity, all open depression, which is both overt and intriguing. Part of it is atmospheric, but there’s also a profoundly scary element to this music. The echoing space-instrumental “Malo” is genuinely creepy, like the opening sequence to one of those horror movies set in a quiet New England town.
This total American-ness could be an easy angle for backlash, but let’s not get too caught up. Pop-rock may sound so much sexier with a Swedish accent, but the quality of this more modest, home-grown fare shouldn’t have to justify itself. “Sleep in Splendour” is a good example—low-pitched and slightly slower in tempo than you might think, its complex tapping guitar becomes, after a few listens, entirely appropriate for the song.
Calla may not be the special talk of SXSW, or the latest band to sweep through New York on a wave of hype, but Strength in Numbers shows us a band who’ve grown exceedingly comfortable in their own style. It’s true that the band doesn’t always get it right, especially when veering closer to the conventional song structures with verses and choruses (that’s when the band most resembles the bands previously noted). But for the most part, Calla has become an uncompromising version of themselves: melancholy, desperate, but above all, unable to break free.