There’s not a whole lot about Cymbals Eat Guitars that makes sense. Take their name, for example: It’s clear within just a few moments of listening to the band’s music that they obviously favor putting stringed instruments front and center over percussion. Even more so than on their debut, Why There Are Mountains, the Lou Reed quote that the Staten Island indie rockers cropped and borrowed for their moniker seems more of an inside joke than anything else.
Before delving into Cymbals Eat Guitars’s sophomore effort, the first thing I thought was, “Why didn’t they just call it Alien Lenses?” I initially suspected it was because it sounds a bit too similar to Guided By Voices’s Alien Lanes, which was, ironically, that band’s final LP before Robert Pollard ventured from the lo-fi confines of a garage to a 24-track recording studio, a transition quite similar to Cymbals Eat Guitars’s sonic stride from Why There Are Mountains to Lenses Alien. After being barraged with frontman Joseph D’Agostino’s endlessly original lyrical structures here, though, it’s clear that’s where the similarities to Guided By Voices end.
In addition to its title, Lenses Alien employs a slightly inverted approach with its song sequencing. “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)” is the album’s opener, but it should probably be the closing number; at nearly nine minutes, it catapults through a wide range of tempos and dynamic shifts that leaves the listener exhausted. “Shore Points,” a fun, lightning-quick tune in the vein of mid-‘90s-era Superchunk, would have made a more appropriate starting point, but the fact that it’s the second track works as something of an orange-juice chaser to the heavy alcohol chug that is “Rifle Eyesight.”
The powerful triple threat of “Plainclothes,” “Definite Darkness,” and “Another Tunguska” highlights just how far the band has come since 2009, lyrically and musically. “Plainclothes” is the album’s most cinematic soundscape, relating an enthralling, drug-fueled narrative involving the sudden death of a state trooper and a vigilant escape to a rowdy beach house in Belmar, New Jersey: “Friends fuck each other in the guestroom/I feel the ghost of all the parties still happening/Right on this very spot that I am standing/Kids are blissing in the spare room, light years away.” The theme of “I’m here, yet I’m not” is a common one throughout Lenses Alien. Much of it has the feeling of isolation, detailing scenarios from the outside looking in, like an extraterrestrial reporting back to his superiors from Earth.
“The Current,” “Wavelengths,” and “Secret Family” take on a decidedly rougher, more sinister tone. “Secret Family” stands out among the three, expertly masking its central darkness with a catchy hook while delivering lyrics that paint a portrait of disorganized youth: “Before ever trying weed/Before the blind opioid glow/He loved his secret family.” “Gary Condit” is screeching yet meditative, ending the album with a question that’s as answerable as it is rhetorical: “Is it teeth-shaking polyphony grace and completion, or nothing?” It’s one thing to deliver clever, offbeat lyrics, but Cymbals Eat Guitars balances out these abstract vocal overtones with deftly handled instrumentation, bringing to mind the heydays of Built to Spill, Pavement, and Superchunk. All three of those bands masterfully juggle creative lyrics with equally inventive music, something Cymbals Eat Guitars comes very close to achieving on Lenses Alien.