The problem with ‘achingly beautiful’ music is, well, it can all get a little too much. If formulaic, swooning choruses leave you feeling a bit giddy, then Mating Surfaces, the second album by Portland art punk band Lithics, could be the harsh dose of smelling salts you need.
Newly signed to KRS, Lithics nestle rather well into that label’s roster of other skewed geniuses like Deerhoof or Erase Erata. While they name The Fall, Wire, Pylon and Captain Beefheart among their influences, the steely inscrutability of Aubrey Hornor’s dead pan voice adds a spiky, charismatic edge that sets Lithics apart.
Once the lid is peeled off, it’s clear Lithics have packed an awful lot into Mating Surfaces’ compact, twenty-eight minute frame. Opener ‘Excuse Generator’ immediately establishes an urgency and impulsiveness that increases exponentially for the entirety of the album. “Can I be myself / Can I talk?” repeats Hornor, side-eyeing us while Bob Desaulniers’ compelling bass melodies interlock with Wiley Hickson’s deft, barely contained rhythms. The finely balanced, laissez-faire approach to the traditional ‘rhythm section’ role curiously provides a stable scaffold onto which Hornor and other guitarist Mason Crumley project their fizzy swarf of guitar noise. Add to that Hornor’s, unblinking, chilly stare and unflinching vocal delivery and you have the makings of something rather special.
Sometimes brash and disorienting, sometimes crisp and hypnotic, Lithics always give the impression they’re toeing the a windy cliff-edge in a feat of absolute precision and over-confidence. ‘When Will I Die?’ for example, hitches itself to a spluttering, discordant guitar riff and jarring bass line; two irreconcilable elements that nevertheless work when bound together with a persistent hi-hat. One of the album’s stand out tracks, ‘Specs’, creeps towards being surf-rock, but in a way that sounds like Glenn Branca reimagining the incidental music from a ’60s Batman punch-up scene. At just over five minutes, the delinquent menace of ‘Boyce’ departs from the concise format found elsewhere on the album, giving space for Hornor and Crumley to improvise, unravelling into a decompressed mass of thundering bass and toms.
With an average track length of just two minutes, the second half of Mating Surfaces is both brief and frantic, but also long enough for its hooks to embed themselves under your skin. It’s in these last few songs that Lithics drill deep into the dark, trapped kinaesthetic energy at their heart. First, it’s the Devo-like modulations and dual guitar counter-attacks of ‘Glass Of Water’, next, the digital, atonal stabs of ‘Be Nice Alone’ and grimy punk grit of ‘Flat Rock’. By the time ‘Edible Door’ and ‘Home’ have passed it becomes clear that, for each off-kilter device and dissonant poke-in-the-ribs Lithics throw into the mix, there is also something coherent and passionate that makes you feel like throwing your body around to. The squally and chaotic closing track ‘Dancing Guy’ pulls imaginary strings above our limbs, jerking us irresistibly around like a moronic marionette. “Goodbye, dancing guy”, Hornor flatly says, leaving us feeling just a little bit humbled and trolled. Can one possibly ask for more than that?
Echoing some of the attitude of the inchoate 70’s No Wave scene, Lithics’ sound may not be entirely new or innovative, but that isn’t the point. Mating Surfaces provides a brief and exciting detour to somewhere less comfortable or secure and, arguably, more interesting. A place that feels real. Lithics will be in the UK for the first time this September, be sure to catch them.
Mating Surfaces was released on 25th May, on Kill Rock Stars.
5/9/18 Brighton, Green Door Store
6/9/18 Bristol, Hy Brasil
7/9/18 London, The Islington
8/9/18 Manchester The Eagle Inn
9/9/18 Glasgow, The Hug And Pint
10/9/18 Oxford, Cellar