Few records this month or maybe even this year will reach the vintage of their street dates as locked and loaded as T-Tops’ Staring at a Static Screen. Coming nearly six years after the band’s eponymous and almost too good to be true full-length debut – and following a string of line-up changes and short-form releases – expectations have been monstrous for this one. And T-Tops meet the moment not with grace but with unabashed fury: a 12-song set whose crunching riffs, pounding refrains, and roared vocals will acne your skin with blisters. Has it really been six years? Don’t tell these guys; they haven’t missed a beat.
T-Tops formed in the American post-industrial heartland about a decade ago, give or take, thanks to guitarist/singer Patrick Waters. In addition to being the only member of the original line-up left standing, Waters is clearly the star of the show here. Drummer Mike Koch (a successor to skins-man Jason Jouver, whose resume includes a stint in Don Caballero) pounds sublime, Crover-esque refrains, hitting the kick-drum and snare with a particular surge and venom, and Matt Schor offers a sometimes-sludgy bottom end. But Waters is the one who you cannot stop hearing and focusing on front and center.
On the “grunge”-by-way-of-Unsane “Drugstore”, a real stand-out, Waters shreds his throat screaming, but the thing that comes to fixate listeners is the oddly hook-ish guitar work, heavy-handed power chords, yes, but power chords having a smashing good time with strong locked grooves. And you thought Human Impact was the only band cashing in on all that love for ’90s New York City-style noise.
Waters’ guitar takes flight here and there – listen to the light-footed percussive thrust and guitar leads of “Savvy Man” – and, occasionally, he even unleashes some gritty, tossed-together-as-punk solos. But tracks like “My Headache”, which you’d better believe is a single if the record has one, are more emblematic of Staring at a Static Screen. It’s dirgy, grimy, and gritty as a hellish landscape of urban decay, bordering on something like a drop-C tuning and pounding at the gray-matter ephemera between listeners’ temples. The song, which has an unusually perky rhythmic line, will drill its earworms goddamn deep into your cerebellum and won’t let go.
“All Black Crown” is so bruising it’s hard to imagine Waters being able to spit out a line or stay composed enough to fret the menacing guitar bridges. “Face of Depression” is the sound of a million Amphetamine Reptile Records’ bands imploding in utter disbelief. This thing is good.
Yes, there are some surprises. The band adds a bit of Melvins-style humor to the fore with a catchy-as-hell punk cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “What Makes You Think You’re the One”. (Yes, yes, that Fleetwood Mac.) And Waters occasionally flicks out a second or two, not much, mind you, to ponder your fate – say the unadorned intros to “My Side of the Line” and opener “Burn the River”. But the record is best for the consistent heights of rage it manages to capture.
Listeners are treated to 12 high-octane songs straddling the ill-defined spaces between punk, post-hardcore, and noise-rock, and, like the group’s unassuming and unflinching live sets, it’s all done without much time being lent to catch your breath. Staring at a Static Screen does not re-write or re-direct the narrative for this menacing little trio, instead opting to focus on the angrier merits of its Big Neck Records debut from back in 2015. It will win over those who give it a chance but be warned: this thing will grab you by the shirt collar and not let loose ’til it’s done spinning.