In February, as Whatever Brains worked to finish their third album, guitarist and producer William Evans suggested that this new entry in his band's catalog would offer another change of pace. Dual keyboardists Hank Shore and Josh Lawson were more prominent, Evans said, while he and frontman Rich Ivey had pushed away from their guitars to add extra percussion and electronics. "I wouldn't say it's a rock record," Evans admitted.
During their five-year existence, Whatever Brains have made themselves and their music purposefully difficult to define. They've never really taken a press photo or written a band biography. They've titled all of their albums, including the new one, simply Whatever Brains. This latest entry doesn't make categorization any easier, but it is the Brains' most inviting release to date, even if it's unrepentantly strange.
Whatever Brains sprouted from Raleigh punk bands such as Crossed Eyes, Street Sharks and Grass Widow; their initial releases were more fuzz-blasted Siltbreeze garage than agile art-rock. In the three years and many singles that came between forming as a duo and releasing their rangy and daring full-length debut, Whatever Brains morphed into a sprawling, snarling mess: Strung-out and tangled guitar riffs met frantic synth-punk blasts, all interrupted by giddy, fleeting detours into country, hip-hop and askance pop.
So while Whatever Brains' new "non-rock" direction isn't entirely without precedent within their own oeuvre, it's nevertheless surprising, especially after their guitar-centric second album, released only last year. It's not completely "non-rock," either: The creepy-crawling guitar riff of "The Senator" practically slithers, while "Elephant Gun" commands with double-drum low end.
But this album is more beholden to its rhythm section and keyboards. "Summer Home," for instance, spins psychedelic delirium from a cloudy synth slog. "Yellow Death 2000" is a characteristically cynical Whatever Brains sneer—this time, though, it's delivered with robotic precision and pointed keyboard melodies, like a more menacing Devo. "Horse Complex 2" rides a slowly swelling synthesizer soundscape that recalls Krautrock lord Hans-Joachim Roedelius and early sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. Ivey historically attacks as frontman; here, he backs off, using his warped vocals more for texture than melody.
These moves suit Whatever Brains' melodic impulses. Never hidden, the band's hooks have nonetheless thrived on punk insistence, but here, they swell into welcoming refrains, or almost. Whatever Brains' previous albums have been largely home-recorded in piecemeal; this time, they holed up at Kings Barcade to crank out basic tracks in a concentrated three days. Granted the benefit of a more focused recording process in a space designed and equipped for hosting bands, the album keys on better dynamics and a more forceful rhythmic punch.
The increased production value bolsters several tunes: "New Drop" boasts Whatever Brains' most infectious and unabashed pop hook to date, even if the bold chorus is quarantined into the album-ending coda. "Bellied Up" reveals a similar structure, offering its shout-along refrain only at song's end. Delayed gratification is still gratification, though, and the payoffs here are worth the wait.
Whatever Brains haven't sacrificed their singular weirdness or off-kilter ambition, which makes the outright catchiness of this album all the more remarkable. Radio programmers still might not hear a "single," but this was never meant for them, anyway. But with this approachable new LP, Whatever Brains fans who've already tapped into (or just given into) the band's altered visions might have an easier time than ever convincing those who haven't yet come along for this ever-surprising trip.
Label: Sorry State Records
This article appeared in print with the headline "Great, again."