Minimalism has retained a surprising amount of cachet in mainstream rock music during the 21st century, an era in which pop, hip-hop and R&B have almost universally become more ostentatious in their stylistic fragmentation and metal has, in general, evolved to value hypertechnical, over-elaborate excess above all else. The booming garage rock revival of the last two decades and the more recent concentration of California’s indie rock scenes around lo-fi psychedelia and beach rock seem to run counter to these trends. Rock is still very much about rawness and simplicity, about the consolidation of pure emotion and creative spontaneity. These things are built into the traditional mythology of rock ‘n’ roll and, for the most part, they haven’t much evolved during the modern age. One of the biggest rock bands to emerge in the last ten years is the Black Keys, a group that so thrives on this orthodoxy that it’s even built into their crudely streamlined two-man, guitar-and-drums configuration. Even now, rock is all about the unrefined and simplified.
Ty Segall, one of the leading figures in California’s lo-fi indie rock scene particularly noted for his prolific recording output, is a strict follower of this doctrine. From the days of his early home studio demos to his 2010 breakthrough Melted to what may be his greatest critical and commercial success yet, 2014’s Manipulator, Segall’s work has been characterized by straightforward, uncluttered compositions — basic chord progressions, standard rock beats, catchy hooks, occasional solos, little fuss. It’s a formula, he fully acknowledges, derived from ‘60s and ‘70s rock standards, free from modern obsessions with genre-bending, stylistic splintering, and overproduced studio ornamentation. Segall’s retro-rockist musical philosophy itself is a way of holding on to the minimalist sensibilities of classic garage rock. It’s an antidote for today’s sensory overload.
Of course, one of the problems with minimalism is that it’s hard to recognize artistic evolution, and after seven albums doing his reliable imitation of time-honored psych-rock with his solo project alone, Segall’s long-held creed of classic rock values has begun to seem stagnant, as if incapable of developing at all. 2015 was the first year without a new record under the Ty Segall name since his first, an omen possibly indicating one of two things: either that the well had run dry, or that his next album, Emotional Mugger, might mark an uncharacteristic shift in the way he does things.
Amazingly, Emotional Mugger neither abandons Segall’s penchant for classically raw rock ‘n’ roll attitude nor does it find him resting in place. The record makes adjustments toward more sophisticated compositions, with sudden shifts in tempo, more varied guitar effects, and unexpectedly complex drum patterns taking a more forward position in Segall’s previously slim arsenal. It’s also his messiest, most caustic album yet, taking the grit of his beloved garage rock to extreme new levels even he has never played with in his extensive discography. All one needs to hear is the discordant, detuned guitars tearing through what must be one of his most abrasive experiments yet, “Emotional Mugger/Leopard Priestess”, to see that Segall has given way to a vital, noisy evolution.
The changes toward a harsher sound is especially noteworthy after some of the downright poppy material Segall has released under his name in the last few years. On Emotional Mugger, he occasionally lets his classically catchy vocal melodies out on tracks like “Squealer Two”, where they’re flanked on both sides by scuzzy guitar solos and a busy bass line with a heady, funky glide, and “Candy Sam”, where everything drowns under a thick bed of fuzz distortion, but these layers of grime make them much harder to parse than on his earlier albums. With the lack of any clean guitar pop and undisturbed glam rock ballads, Emotional Mugger upsets most of Segall’s standard rituals with imaginative chaos — a more than welcome exchange.
It’s not all humming fuzz guitars and disorienting structural turmoil, tough, and in fact one of the record’s greatest joys is its persistently funky groove, held down by some of the most truly creative drumming in Segall’s catalog. On “Squealer”, the percussion follows the intermittent rhythm of the stop-start guitar riff; on “Mandy Cream” and “Candy Sam”, the reserved beats create a pulse around Segall’s dense mischief; on “Diversion”, the propulsive hi-hat hits give life to the messy buzz of the guitars before galloping into relentless drum fills during the closing solo section. Basically, in the absence of too much of Segall’s signature melodic touch, the classic rock grooves channeled throughout Emotional Mugger provide the infectious, approachable edge needed to balance against his anarchic turbulence.
Even the mixing is deliriously unhinged between tracks, swapping thin snare clicks for meaty snaps, delicately melodic bass for muscular, rattling lows, and full-toned, droning guitar fuzz for tinny, high octave riffs. Opener “Squealer” even calls attention to it, straining the mix through a few different EQ filters and effects chains before settling on one that sends us into the first verse. It tells us that Segall intends this to be an instinctually chaotic, confused kind of a record, which is exactly the basis on which it succeeds.
After his steadfast reliance on formula, it might be easy to overstate the changes Segall makes on the album, but every song is disruptive of his routine in some way. On Melted or Manipulator, these tracks would all sound much simpler, cleaner, and safer, but very little about Emotional Mugger is safe. Indeed, it overcomes the safe. Emotional Mugger proves it’s still possible to evolve as an artist within the relatively limiting framework of rock traditionalism, even if the answer is to crank everything up to new extremes, give way to violent stylistic mutation, and completely deconstruct whatever’s comfortable.