Much of the time, it’s experimental music that teeters between abstruse avant-gardism and mainstream accessibility that can prove to be exceptionally arduous to bring to fruition. Of course, delving deep into the rabbit hole of underground and unorthodox music will uncover no end of uber-complex styles that will undoubtedly demand unmatched levels of compositional finesse to fully actualise, but cogently striking a balance between esoteric experimentation and mainstream appeal is another beast entirely. Given that alternative genres of music often purposefully exist in direct opposition to dominant musical conventions, attempting to meet the two may seem as futile as trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, but, in truth, if approached with an appropriate level of compromise, such undertakings can prove to be incredibly effective and enthralling. In the case of Boston-born art punks Guerilla Toss, whose output since the release of their third album, Gay Disco, has sought to integrate elements of noise, no wave and general discordance into the danceability of disco and funk, the band’s previous bids to establish a settlement between these two styles were seemingly hinged a bit too heavily on their skronk sensibilities, making for an overall sound that was often too bogged down by clashing guitars and shrieked vocals to cogently convey their playful attitude. The thought that Guerilla Toss may ultimately be resigned to the status of sounding better on paper than in practice is a rather disheartening one, as the five-piece’s most successful endeavours across their last handful of projects are fantastically fun, if somewhat limited. With the avant-funk outfit’s newest studio album, GT Ultra, arriving just over a year following the release of its predecessor, Eraser Stargazer, whether or not Guerilla Toss would prove themselves to have substantially grown as a band during this relatively short period of time seemed shaky and, indeed, this record has its issues, but they pertain more to structural inconsistencies than stylistic shortfalls. Most definitely, when it comes to the success with which Guerilla Toss authorise an effective compromise between their experimental and danceable sides, GT Ultra is surely the group’s most successful release thus far in their career. There are nevertheless some significant shortcomings that hold the album back from being as forcible as it could be, however, most of which pertain to the structuring of the tracklisting. Indeed, GT Ultra is quite the back-loaded record when it comes to the lengths of these songs, although its most infectious moments arrive early on in the tracklisting, making for a release that suffers from a rather clunky pacing, which is only exacerbated by the album’s brevity, with its eight songs not even exceeding half an hour in length. This being said, given just how sizeable Guerilla Toss’ improvements are with regards to their performances, the record’s production value and the overall cohesion of the group’s raw and eclectic stylings, GT Ultra, whilst flawed, marks a significant step in the right direction for the future of the band’s abstract amalgam of such contradictory styles.
The frenzied performances and kaleidoscopic fusion of genres that have been associated with the Guerilla Toss name for quite some time undoubtedly reach their pinnacle on the best moments from GT Ultra. With production that is less piercing than much of the band’s recent material, whilst nevertheless maintaining a sharp edge that benefits their fiery performances, and a more nuanced approach to building on the numerous layers of instrumentation and stylistic principles, songs like Betty Dreams Of Green Men and Can I Get The Real Stuff vividly bring to life the ideas that have always made Guerilla Toss such an intriguing outfit in theory. In the case of the former song, for instance, the way in which the latticework of the guitars, the warbles of the appropriately spacey synths and the bursts of squelching bass licks entangle in a chaotic but colourful fashion, as the frantic yelps of frontwoman Kassie Carlson dance around on top, is impressively tight, despite how busy the entire arrangement is. Of course, a great deal of this can be attributed to the improved production value, which manages to bring a semblance of order to the track’s hectic timbre, whilst the bright bounce given to much of the instrumentation bolsters some of the song’s best moments, particularly Carlson’s vocal harmonies during what is undeniably the stickiest hook boasted by any Guerilla Toss track. In the case of the sonically rich Can I Get The Real Stuff, the obscure time signature that supports the sleek squeaks and shimmers of synthesizers instantly injects the song with a saccharine flavour, which is satisfyingly counterbalanced by Carlson’s particularly boisterous vocal performance and the abrupt and forceful beat switches. The wild pulsations of wobbling synths on Crystal Run are similarly sugary, although the bizarre use of autotune on Carlson’s vocals, which sees her voice fluctuate maniacally, may play into the song’s sci-fi aesthetic, but it surely borders on simply sounding shrill at times. Given the consistently high quality of Carlson’s catchy choruses across the course of GT Ultra, it would seem as if merely allowing the frontwoman to deliver one of her usual infectious performances unadulterated would be more than enough for her to contribute to the cut’s overall kookiness. Outside of the occasional quibble, however, the improved lucidity and sharpness of the production across GT Ultra complements Guerilla Toss’ stylings fantastically well, in that the arrangements across the album come together as a sum of their parts, instead of forming somewhat of a shrill wall of sound, as was sometimes the case on the band’s previous output.
As previously mentioned, however, it’s a lack of structural cohesion that can leave GT Ultra feeling like an unfortunately underwritten and inconsistent album at times, which is brought to the forefront by just how strikingly short it is. As a result, and particularly by the time of some of the comparatively longer cuts towards the end of the tracklisting, the extent to which Guerilla Toss dwell on certain motifs can noticeably hurt some of these songs, especially given that there isn’t all that much time to waste on GT Ultra. Of course, that’s not to say that any of these ideas are bad or even lacklustre per se, rather, past the point of establishment, not all of them are justified in how they can be used as somewhat of a compositional crutch at times. The syncopated, cowbell-heavy rhythms on Dog In The Mirror, as an example, lead into some irresistibly danceable beat switches, but the group simply doesn’t build on this strong foundation enough over the course of the track’s five-minute duration to account for its length, especially considering the instances in which the song simply stops, so that a droning synth chord can fill out the empty space for a bit before the band re-enters. Similarly, the uncharacteristically sluggish groove of The String Game undeniably establishes a unique position for this song in the tracklisting, but with this beat remaining practically unchanged throughout the entirety of the cut, not to mention the fact that Carlson’s vocal refrain is disappointingly unvaried, the track seems to be more focussed around the admittedly smooth textures of buzzing synths and envelope filter bass than any semblance of a satisfying structure. Likewise, considering a song like TV Do Tell, which is a jaunty, funky and undeniably fun synthpop tune, is only permitted one and a half minutes of playtime, the fact that tracks such as Dog In The Mirror are relatively overblown becomes even more apparent, all of which accumulates into somewhat of an unsatisfying album structure.
Given just how greatly improved Guerilla Toss’ overall sound is on GT Ultra compared to their previous output, it’s hard to be too negative about the album, as, structural issues aside, it undoubtedly makes for an enjoyable listening experience. With the group’s ear for alluring grooves, wobbly melodies and lush textures being more cogently conveyed on this record than on any past release from the psychedelic outfit, it’s easy for the listener to allow the layers of slick sounds to wash over them and merely enjoy the dynamism of Guerilla Toss’ animated performances. This being said, some of the structural shortfalls are pronounced to the point of impacting the fluidity of the record and, thus, limiting the extent to which the listener can simply be whisked away by its funky propulsive force. Outside of this, however, with GT Ultra signifying such a drastic improvement to Guerilla Toss’ sound across the board, so as long as they can tighten up their compositional consistency on subsequent material, future undertakings could surely see the band carve out a definitive musical identity for themselves within the many experimental music scenes.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10