In all likelihood, you’ve never heard the words “you need help” delivered with quite the combination of directness and reassurance as when Guerilla Toss frontwoman Kassie Carlson sings them at the outset of “Cannibal Capital”, the opening track on Famously Alive. The quirky art-rock outfit’s fifth proper full-length—and first for the iconic Sub Pop label—Famously Alive marks the first time that Carlson and her bandmates have made a deliberate effort to uplift the audience. But even when they weren’t trying, Guerilla Toss had already perfected the art of zapping listeners with intoxicating high-energy jolts that were hard to walk away from without feeling giddy. (Full disclosure: I once worked as a tour publicist for the band, but I’d long been a fan by that point.)
The Catskills-based art-rock outfit are perhaps most easily understood as a connective link between the alternative-dance sound popularized by the likes of LCD Soundsystem in the 2000s and contemporary acts like Cherry Glazerr and Mamalarky, whose combination of sparkly tones and instrumental prowess shares much in spirit with the chaotic vibrance of Toss releases like 2016’s Eraser Stargazer and 2017’s GT Ultra. In truth, though, Guerilla Toss encompass an even broader array of styles ranging from no wave to punk to avant-pop. Like the similarly hard-to-pigeonhole Deerhoof, Guerilla Toss have always had a way of wearing oddness on their sleeve, but in a way that invites rather than alienates.
So it makes perfect sense that Carlson can say things on “Cannibal Capital” that sounds like a prelude to an intervention—singing “live in filth / sick, lickin’ the poison”—and still come across like a musical fairy-godmother about to lead you on a fanciful journey through sound. And what a galvanizing journey it is, as usual. As the first stirrings of multi-instrumentalist Peter Negroponte’s drumbeat arise out of a formless, collage-like swirl of primordial sonic ooze, Guerilla Toss’s trademark bounce starts to take shape. It’s the first of several times on this album that Negroponte nods to the style of Police drummer Stewart Copeland while guitarist Arian Shafiee’s snaking arpeggios recall Police guitarist Andy Summers.
Longtime fans of the band will recognize Negroponte and Shafiee’s knack for turning 1980s new-wave pop influences on their head so that they sound utterly in-tune with the present. As much as Shafiee and Negroponte wear groups like the Police and the Cars on their sleeve—on almost half a dozen tracks on Famously Alive alone, there’s nary a chance in hell that you’ll ever hear a Guerilla Toss song on the soundtrack to Stranger Things. If you want to get a roomful of confused looks, try dropping them into the song queue at the next ’80s night you attend. That’s because bands with imaginations this fertile can’t be reduced to pop-culture kitsch, even when the references to older sounds couldn’t be more obvious.
When “Cannibal Capital” erupts into a swell of keyboards even before it gets to the chorus, it’s as if Guerilla Toss are heralding a collective apocalypse—in the literal sense denoting a “realization”—the music blaring like a trumpet blast for all of us to hear. After recovering from opiate addiction, Carlson found herself struggling with anxiety and panic as the life-changing events of 2020 unfolded. As she explains via the album’s press release, Famously Alive documents her journey back into reconnection with her body. Meanwhile, the title track—a two-minute burst of energy reminiscent of Bad Brains, but with a dayglo pop coating—urges the audience to view “success” less in terms of striving for fame and more through the lens of appreciating one’s unique place in life.
After a career spent pushing themselves stylistically and musically, this time, Negroponte decided to mimic contemporary radio-friendly pop. In the band’s view, they’d be subverting commercial sounds and somehow end up in a more out-there place—always a dangerous game to play. Guerilla Toss risk dulling their edge at times, such as on the Auto-Tune-heavy “Mermaid Airplane”. Moments like that stick out like sore thumbs. But even for fans who’ve been familiar with Guerilla Toss’s style for several albums now, the glacier-sized keyboard swells of “Happy Me”—a song that’s simultaneously foreboding, urgent, cheerful, and cartoonish—engulf the senses in a feeling that you’re hearing, touching and tasting music you’ve never encountered before.
Even after years of anchoring their sound around the warped dance sensibility fans have come to expect, Famously Alive captures a band that can only do so much to compromise their magnificent strangeness.