The name of Quicksand’s latest LP, Distant Populations, makes me think of a science fiction concept album, maybe an observation of an alien society similar to an Ursula K. Le Guin story. Based on the visual art that the band and their label, Epitaph Records, has been promoting, this isn’t quite true, but it isn’t entirely false either. The album art, created by artist Tetsunori Tawaraya, proves a distant, exploratory, otherworldly nature to the album. Psychedelic and beastly, Tetsunori’s art is expanded in a YouTube playlist posted by Epitaph to stream the entire album.
Each song is accompanied by animated sci-fi fantasy visuals taken from Tetsunori’s art. The staff-wielding caped character with a spiky head from the album art repeatedly appears in colorful jagged landscapes along with one-eyed, sharp-toothed monsters. Bodies float in membrane bubbles, and faces morph in and out of themselves.
These images add an extra dynamic to the experience of Distant Populations. They may also help us understand the themes revolving around social disconnection and the inability to return to the past. Although vague and fragmented, the lyrics ruminate over lost relationships and feelings of isolation. They read like resigned observations about the lack of meaning in the way people relate to each other. Perhaps these can be the observations and insights of the caped character, a traveler burdened by their past, attempting to make sense of what they see. And as dispassionate as the lyrics appear to be on the page, they become endearing when sung.
Sonically, Quicksand’s recent works carry a lighter temperament compared to their music from the early 1990s. The band, consisting of post-hardcore stalwart Walter Schreifels, drummer Alan Cage, and bassist Sergio Vega, made a comeback in 2017 with Interiors, their first album together in 22 years. They sound less intense and angry, granted they are all in their 50s. Each member has had different experiences in different musical projects that have changed their tastes and approaches to the writing process. Quicksand’s music has softened but still excites. They’ve shed their metallic aggression for a pensive demeanor. Schreifels dropped his angsty screeches for smooth, tenuous melodies. Gone are the down-tuned, chugging guitar progressions, which now seem like a symbol of their youthful angst.
Schreifels and co. developed a brooding post-grunge tone with Interiors. Their new music isn’t a rehashing of their old music, which is logical but isn’t too far removed from it either. They haven’t completely abandoned their roots. Instead, they’ve relaxed, showing they are not afraid to play what feels good to them. Distant Populations is merely a continuation of said mood. Songs like “Katakana” and “EDMR” bear Quicksand’s signature sour guitars and sneaking basslines.
These features sound cleaner and tamer than the jagged intensity of their first two albums. If longtime Quicksand fans prefer bombastic energy, they’ll have to find it in a younger band’s music. However, Distant Populations does contain elements that quicken blood flow, such as the down-stroked punches of “Inversion”, as well as the palm-muted chords and driving force of “Lightning Field” and “The Philosopher”, the latter encompassing the overall sound and vibe of the album.
These days Quicksand succeeds the most in their mid-tempo grooves, which they perfected on Interiors. One of the best stand-out tracks, “Colossus”, is dotted with strategically placed resting measures that the band uses to detonate a big verse riff. It would take effort not to nod your head through this song. “Rodan” is easily the catchiest song on the Distant Populations. Sergio Vega and Alan Cage display playfulness on bass and drums, evoking a funky pace fuzzed with distortion. It stands out as a shining three-and-a-half-minute accomplishment and urges you to relisten.
Adding respite to the album is “Brushed” with its electronic drum ticks and acoustic strumming that crescendo in symphonic layers. Then, there is the delicate, reposing interlude, “Compacted Reality”. This is something that the band would have never done in the early 1990s. However, it isn’t something that would gain them new attention. But Quicksand don’t seem interested in pandering to a new crowd or their old fans, which is admirable and demonstrates artistic valor and a grounded sense of discipline.