[Don Giovanni, 2013]
Jeff Pearson, January 20, 2013
Listen: “Spider X”
“Sucker,” the nearly seven-minute opening track of California X’s self-titled debut album, begins and ends in the same manner. A pummeling, sludgy battalion of guitars march to a staccato drum beat as if the record is skipping; the young punks bookend the track this way almost to say that the unrelenting feast of thickly-laid guitar rock is inescapable, that the listener is being buried underneath it all as they pile it on. It just so happens that for those six or so minutes in between the jumping needle repetitious onslaught is a punchy, completely infectious rock song that highlights the band’s uncanny pop sensibilities. This juxtaposition of the imperfect and the polished is perhaps California X’s most intriguing element. One never fully gives in to the other, and the contrasting philosophies actually seem to work in conjunction with one another. The record can be a trying grunge suffocation or a quite accessible pop experience, depending on which set of ears the listener chooses to approach it with.
There is one thing that is consistent pretty much every time, no matter how the listener approaches the record: these dudes can play. The Amherst, Massachusetts trio plods through the eight-song set with a sort of nonchalant bravado, the band’s chops obvious but not exactly the focal point of the record. Instead, guitarist/vocalist Lemmy Gurtowsky casually churns out riff after riff simply to move the song along; it’s as if when they got together in some frigid garage to record California X, the only thing that made sense to him to go from point A to point B within the song’s structure was packing as many explosive riffs in as he could. Basic, understated playing is used to stunning affect when coated with Gurtowsky’s impossibly thick tone on tracks like “Pond Rot” and “Hot Hed;” his playing is an homage to the fierce rejection of technicality that the nineties yielded, filtered through a twenty-first century stomp box of everything-all-the-time attitude.
The important thing to note about California X is that for all of its trappings of emulating a time when attitude took precedence over song craft, over anything, really, the band never fully buries their songs. It would be easy to let something like “Spider X” become nothing more than an exercise in volume, but Gurtowsky reels everything in with huge hooks to underscore the sheer power of their instrumentals. His voice is subtle and fuzzy yet somehow completely pronounced thought the entire record, really a testament to the wonderful mixing, allowing the listener to feel the record physically but still connect with the humanness emanating from it. Each line is delivered with a palpable passion, perhaps from the garage days when he had to strain to be heard over the trio’s impossibly mammoth sound, but like on “Spider X,” when he shouts “I will wait for you,” the songs reach their boiling point when he has to match the ferocity with which they are playing. There are times when their tracks reach an almost heavy metal level of intensity, but Gurtowsky continually keeps things light with his somewhat unthreatening lyrics and keen attention to pop hooks.
That factor is really what makes California X a record that everyone can find enjoyment out of. Thirty-somethings might feel the urge to dust the flannel off when they throw the record on, finding some sort of solace in Gurtowsky’s liberal use of fuzz and relentless riffing, but the pop enthusiast of today will find the prominence of hook-laden optimism appealing; the great thing is that neither would be wrong to do. It’s a record that simultaneously wears its grungy influences on its sleeve while embodying the spirit of today. In that way, California X could place themselves in the realm of influences for some lone shredder years to come.