And then there are the bands that just have it. Maybe the music is a groovy little gimmick that overwhelms your body like an electric shock; maybe it's a slower number so plain and candid that it knocks you off a high or deepens your low. Music like this is beyond logic and reason -- maybe even beyond taste -- but it's also some of the most compelling.
This is the domain of Prime Sth, a Stockholm foursome all in their early 20s who have been together since their teens. And true to its title, what's moving about Underneath the Surface is something that's brewing just out of reach, unexplainable through cursory listenings or perfunctory pigeonholing. But it's something that carries you away with the first listen, bringing you back again and again.
In sum, at first Prime come off like a post-grunge new rock outfit steeped in a thoroughly American tradition and outside the chipper poppiness of most Swedish fare. The signature attributes are all there -- simple, minor, dark guitar lines blurred by over-distortion; heavy-handed drumming; anguished lyrics sung by a tortured rock-boy type; and songs with titles like "My Evil Friend" and "Let Me Bleed".
But while part of the intrigue comes from their Swedish nationality, the rest is something that can't be attributed to cultural fetishism or superficial novelty. In the same way that folks with no proclivity for sinister post-metal rock can find something curious in Tool, Prime shape up to be something above and beyond the roots from which they're grown. Start it with Noa Medon's voice -- stealthy and dynamic, as compelling in a scream as in an intense, heartfelt vibrato. The ability to dance between these styles -- even within lines -- strikes a listener immediately, and intoxicates like a drug. "I Don't Envy You", for instance, opens with a flash of high-pitched guitars coupled with high-hat and snare before Medon jumps in with a pithy, breathy "huh", setting the music loose for 16 counts of fierce guitar. Then he sings "Accident / I promise you I did not mean to / Always the same/ I guess I'm the kind that never learn / never learn" -- as his voice rushes toward you and runs away, jumps high on falsetto, and rummages deep. And every note sounds believable, wrenched from the heart and displayed, bleeding and beating before you.
And that reality is also what's so refreshing about Prime. It's reminiscent of the organic nature of alternative rock bands before rabid commercialism and talentless-ness overran the genre. The free-of-tricks, full-of-heart guitar and bass playing also solidifies every song, even when at its most simple. Take the beautiful "I'm Stupid (Don't Worry 'Bout Me)", which transcends the potential fault of its title to deliver a cool, cruel, beautiful modern rock ballad. It opens with an uncomplicated guitar line that pushes forward against an almost tribal drum beat, before closing in on open, glossy chord changes and additional instrumentation. It's perfectly matched to the self-defeatism and dismissiveness of the lyrics: "I'm stupid, You're smarter / I'm stupid thinking there's a way this could turn out right / If I could make you love me / You're out of reasons to stay / Make it easy on yourself / Don't worry 'bout me".
The album's mix of strong, angry tracks with insecure, brooding anthems makes Underneath the Surface a likable record for aficionados across the musical spectrum. The power comes in its unapologetic adolescence and its constant soul-searching for those kernels that are more real, more genuine. It may sound a lot like something you've heard before, but dig deeper -- and know that this is not your little sister's alternative rock band.