Friday, May 5, 2017

IN RETROSPECT: 2011'S "Two - Way Mirror" Album by Crystal Antlers - A Complex Twisted Pretzel of Psych Rock


As I have been curating songs for the American Pancake Podcast I have been delving into some old albums which made me then delve into some old reviews. Sometimes it is fun to re-post past reviews because every time I do I get emails from readers who have discovered an older album and thus open themselves up to new sounds which ping pongs them to another band and so on and so forth. Back in 2011 when Crystal Antlers' sophomore album Two Way Mirror came out the reviews were mixed. Pitchfork had some nice things to say and some snide things to say as always and gave it a 7 which in Pitchfork's world is not bad. Alex Young over at Consequence of Sound gave the album a startling D which is utterly baffling and in my mind that nullifies Alex's opinion of any album or song. In fact, if he suggested a place to get a pizza I probably would not go there. In any event, every opinion is valid but my opinion is that both blogs got it wrong. I don't do number ratings or any kind of ratings because to me they are kind of high school but in point of reference Two Way Mirror is an A- / 8.5. So there. Now I kind of feel like I am in high school again. - Robb Donker

Originally Posted July 17, 2011

The first time I heard the song that would grace the seventh track of Crystal Antler's album Two Way Mirror is when I shot their performance on March 11th at the Glasshouse in Pomona, Ca. At that time I didn't know the name of the song. The very next day at a house show I got a chance to chat with bassist / vocalist Jonny Bell and show him some of the footage. He told me the name of the song was "Fortune Telling" and that it would be on their new album. Moments later, Crystal Antlers performed an inspired sweat soaked set in the small confines of that house show. Anyone who has seen them at small venues know that this is were they thrive. It is like the audience and band become one entity. Many bands have a difficult time living up to their recorded works but with Crystal Antlers it is quite the opposite. They are so fully realized live that it was with a fair amount of trepidation that I pushed play to experience Two Way Mirror, the follow up to their 2009 Tentacles.

Amidst industrial keys and feedback (just 22 seconds in) "Jules Story" kicks in. With it's rapid fire drumming, heavy bass line, dramatic guitar strains and Jonny Bell's battle cry vocals it feels cinematic in scope like an out numbered Calvary charging the enemy. "Fell in love with the gun and it shot my son... fell in love with the gun - he was 21." The lyrics seem to touch on our how violence (and our love of it) can make calloused hearts. "Seance" is more transparent in it's desire to move like a hyper waltz with all instruments and vocals starting immediately. It has a frenetic "carousel out of control" feel with heavy down beats and a musical break midway in that sounds orchestral in composition. Appropriately, in this seance, Crystal Antlers conjures up supernatural imagery, "wild and distant eyes sang from somewhere behind... a figure slightly blurred... appeared solid in flesh."  I had heard "Summer Solstice" many months earlier live and it is one of those songs that captures you like love at first sight or (in this case) love at first hear. The tentative way Cora Fox's bell like keys begin sound like faded memories coming back to you. They draw you in. The catchy drum beat gives way to a fanning base which then gives way to a hooky bass line as the verse begins revealing  Jonny's rebel yell laced with yearning, "Left for dead while sun spots fade... fade away." His vocal melody is often times shadowed by Andrew King's trancy guitar melodies.

"By the Sawkill" and "Two Way Mirror" are both quintessential full on jammy "grab you by the throat" Crystal Antlers. The shirtless wonder Kevin Stuart is a flurry of drum rolls along with percussionist Damien Edwards. Everyone is in attack mode on the both cuts and they are both just plain delicious. [It has to be said here that- as there would of been no Beatles without Ringo Starr, no Blondie without Clem Burke, no Who without Keith Moon- Kevin Stuarts both nuanced and progressive drumming is integral to Crystal Antler's sound.] "Way Out" is a very brief dirty synth interlude but has it's fair share of melodrama nonetheless and plays out like a silent movie soundtrack.

Now we come back around to "Fortune Telling." Awash in a big room echo it sounds dreamy. King's guitar melancholy lead lines evokes early ELO and the church organ sound only adds to the other worldly feel. Bell's vocals sound like laments, "you've lived through triumphs man... with glassy eyes and greasy features." This song like all the songs on this album breathe more over time as you hear more musical interplay each time you listen. At under 2 minutes long, "Always Afraid" sounds like a compendium piece to "Fortune Telling"- as if it is part of the same musical story arc, "why proceed when you can't succeed... stars mislead and supersede... just give up... just give up." It is almost a full crescendo of progressive rock psychedelia. I could swear that I have heard "Knee Deep" in other forms at live performances. It has some of the slower tempos on this album but still has dashes of fury. The descending bass lines are lush and some of the sustained breaks get on the fringes of 70's dream rock like Pink Floyd (but not). "Knee Deep" ends much too quickly.

"Sun Bleached" burns slowly with a fair amount of ambient noise that again conjures up bygone days on blistered Super Eight film, "another Indian summer... another sun bleached dream." It sounds like an idea that has not germinated into a full fledged piece but I don't care. Crystal Antlers experimental nature appeals to me and I feel honored to be listening in. The single biggest surprise on Two Way Mirror is the very last track - "Dog Days" because, in terms of songwriting, it is the most conventional song on the album. The double time keys and verse rhythm is almost a blues boogie and the chorus dances big time and feels almost like surf pop. Could the ghosts of Springsteen and the Beach Boys have entered Crystal Antler's dream party?

Crystal Antlers have always created unique music that is at once dark and brooding but uplifting at the same time. Two Way Mirror is a stellar piece of work that works well AS an album from beginning to end. My strongest critique would be that Bell's vocal track is still buried too much although they are brought out more than in the previous Tentacles album. He has a wonderful character to his voice which comes through loud and clear but often times the lyrics do not and that is a shame because they are well written prose that cast provocative movies in your mind. In Crystal Antlers I see a band that is a work in progress. I don't mean this in a negative way. All the best musical artists are works in progress who continue to grow and change their art form. I look forward to hearing their next album.

Robb Donker

Crystal Antlers are:
Jonny Bell - vocals, bass
Andrew King - guitar
Cora Foxx - Keys
Kevin Stuart - Drums
Damien Edwards - Percussion

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