Something rare happens from time to time on Kinski’s new album, Down Below its Chaos. Chris Martin sings. Particularly early on, we are greeted with vocals not often heard on Kinski tracks, and while their underwhelming quality makes you initially assume why Martin never really sang before, the way they eventually settle into the tracks make them worthwhile. He hardly busts out a big set of lungs here, happy to meander through his lyrics in a slacker talk-sing that sets up a nice tension against the band’s texture.
If the vocals are underwhelming to hear, though, then they are the only thing understated about Down Below its Chaos. The new album completes a move to straight-ahead rock the band had been hinting at in recent records. The guitars come thick and distorted here, heavy on muscle and backed by a rhythm section coming with just as much weight. There are moments on here as fully realized as on any of the band’s other expansive records. “Plan, Steal, Drive” is nearly eight minutes long, and starts with a patient, echoed-out guitar that promises a slow burn. The tune delivers on that promise for nearly five minutes before the full band kicks in, and if the chug of the drums isn’t enough to get you banging your head, the rafter-high guitar solos will. “Boy, Was I Mad!” builds in a similar way, and while it is not as patient to get to the pay-off, the guitars move through some riffs here that are a little more subtle than the beefed-up fuzz on the rest of the record, until the drums take over and speed the song off a cliff.
The problem is that is as crazy or out of control as this album gets. “Dayroom at Narita Int’l”, the third track, becomes a microcosm for the entire album. “Up here anything goes, but down below it’s chaos,” Martin sings here, but it sounds wholly unbelievable. If the band is “up here” and anything does, in fact, go, then why does this track sound like it’s a 45 being played at 33 1/3 speed? Why does “Crybaby Blowout” waste its big crunchy opening riff on a song that blusters and ends up nowhere? And if there is a below under all this, and it is chaos, then why don’t we get any hint of that? “Plan, Steal, Drive” and the ending of “Boy, Was I Mad!” aside, this entire album feels very contained, even claustrophobic. Kinski, a band that once sounded huge on record, doesn’t sound much like they’re pushing at anything here.
That isn’t to say Down Below its Chaos isn’t listenable. Maybe it is too listenable, the guitars too simple to support their big sound, the heavy drums not heavy enough to overcome such predictable tracks. It all just sounds like Kinski is underachieving on this record. That maybe they’ve heard anything goes up here, and that below it there is some chaos, but that they can’t bring themselves to engage in either. They don’t sound open to the space given them in a place where anything could go, or receptive to the dangerous opportunism that can come in chaos. Instead, they are stuck somewhere between, in a canned-up purgatory, sounding like a band that not only could do a lot more, but one that already has.