“Why won’t you look at me / Like a human being?” Andy Bird furiously asks in the rousing chorus of “Human Being / Elephant Man”, the title track on Almost Free’s new EP. The theme of dehumanization and interpersonal division is prevalent throughout the brief record’s three cuts. Using Joseph Merrick as a model, the first tune opens spectrally, crystalline strings lightly plucked under a bed of fuzzy radio tuning before a driving bass-drum interplay revs up. When the refrain arrives, it takes on the ambience of speeding down the highway at night, Bird’s declaration that he’s not an animal morphing from a statement of pain to one of righteous indignation without sacrificing any pathos. As the momentum builds and the rhythm pummels with increasing intensity, the vocals soar ethereally above skittering fretwork reminiscent of Tom Morello.
Describing their subgenre as “upwave”, Almost Free displays a compelling level of urgency and earnestness. Driven by the classic guitar-bass-drums lineup, the Detroit trio augments what could be a standard rock format with airy synths, askew rhythms, and laser-beaming guitar lines. Their sound is akin to arty math rock, but it is energizing rather than aurally pedantic. The crisp and expansive production work on this latest EP — their third, and they also have one LP — crafts a feeling of chilly isolationism, one of a world whose inhabitants are alienated from one another in the era of too much individual-vaporizing technology and social media.
That sentiment is particularly true on middle track “Only Girl”. Romantic on the surface, the narrator’s devotion to a woman is magnified by existing as a rarity. It’s a testament to the band that they can make this mid-tempo song so simultaneously intimate and sprawling. Final song “Contradictionary” is laced with venom, its lyrics addressing cognitive dissonance between persons and society and accompanied by music that feels pent-up with frustration and on the cusp of erupting. Near the end, it launches into a dinosaur stomp, unhinged and ground-rattling in the intensity of its lurching rhythm. At just three songs, Human Being / Elephant Man is Almost Free’s most succinct and thematically-consistent document, and is simply their best release.