There’s an undeniable sense of dread that sinks in as you listen to “Happy in Bits”, the opener to Prinzhorn Dance School’s new sophomore album Clay Class. Like everything on the album, “Happy in Bits” is extremely stark and minimalist: bass and drums duel with sinister urgency underneath the insistent, half-shouted refrain of “We’re happy in pieces / Happy in bits / You and me / Just happy to be”, with occasional laconic bursts of angular melody from a guitar. The spare instrumentation makes the song’s opening declaration, “I’m glad you’re here”, sound like you’ve just walked into a prison cell. That suffocating feeling pervades Clay Class, an album full of tight, stripped-down punk burners that hit pretty hard until they start blurring at the edges.
The duo takes its moniker from their surnames — Tobin Prinz plays drums and Suzi Horn plays bass — but also from the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn, who pioneered the study of art created by the mentally ill. That second etymology seems like a key touchstone for understanding the band’s modus operandi, as if their music could be the soundtrack to a dance class populated by psychopaths. What it also sounds like is a comfortable middle ground between the sneering pop-punk of Los Campesinos! and the pared-down slinkiness of the xx, with a maturity and hard edge that neither of those bands possess. Prinz’s vocals stand out throughout the album, reminiscent of XTC’s Colin Moulding, and the slightness of Horn’s voice sitting on top adds a great sense of vertical space when the two sing in octaves, as on “The Flora and Fauna of Britain in Bloom”.
Prinzhorn Dance School finds the most success when they use their distinctive sound to fuel a really distinctive song. Two of the strongest are “Usurper”, which recalls “War Pigs” with its martial-sounding drums and incisive lyrics, and “I Want You”, a little slice of shoegaze in which PDS allow a guitar to flesh out the sound a bit. On the former, Prinz and Horn bleat epithets like “We don’t need you / We don’t want you / Step aside / Get off”, an improvement over some of the later songs on the album that seem content to simply stick to the blueprint. The latter, meanwhile, wraps a pretty vicious love letter — “I want you / Suffocate your soul / Cage your freedom / In a loving prison” — in a romantic decoy of a song.
The second half of the album doesn’t live up to the rather strong first side, with less-inspired, somewhat tuneless songs like “Crisis Team” and “Sing Orderly” mostly providing more of the same. The exception is “Turn Up the Light”, which features some guitar work and vocal harmony made really thrilling by the utter lack of it anywhere else. Clay Class goes out with more of a whimper than a bang, but it’s hard to root against it. Prinzhorn’s one-of-a-kind sound has an admirable consistency to it, even if the pony becomes a little one-trick after a while.