If you trawl back through my website, you’ll find a fair number of fond mentions of Che Guevara T-Shirt, a venerable, unusual, and ever more exceptional noise rock band from Albany, New York. That list of enthusiastic cites gets one entry longer this month with the release of the group’s seventh record, Seven Out, Pay The Don’ts, a five cut slab of dense, deep delirium that slams and knots its way to transcendence over a tangled 34-minute run.
CGT was formed around 2005 by Albany-scene veterans K Sonin and Matt Heuston, and the group’s earliest lineups and releases hewed to a fairly traditional guitar-bass-drum-vox paradigm, though their music was more elliptical, mathematical, and challenging than what the sneaker-gazing brigade was mostly offering at the time. Sometime before their stellar 2013 breakthrough album, Everyone That’s Dead Was Obviously Wrong, Heuston and Sonin dramatically reinvented the group’s sonic palette and approach by setting aside their customary instruments (bass and lead guitar) and taking up a pair of baritone guitars in their stead.
That instrumental change was substantial and transformative, allowing the pair to create a dynamic front line of equally-equipped sonic adventurers, taking their winding explorations of mutated riffs and atonal licks in directions that I’ve frankly never heard probed before, on stage or on record. 2016’s Tsarskoye Selo found Sonin and Heuston working out a trio format with drummer John Olander with exceptional results, as the early frantic rhythms slowed a bit, the songs stretched out more, the interplay of the baritones became more baroque and bizarre, and the grinding riffs just got positively huge.
How do you build on that trend line of success? In CGT’s case, they decided to add even more power and heft to the mix by recruiting bassist Chris Reach into the band, and then commissioning Justin Pizzoferrato (whose C.V. includes work with such noisy icons as Dinosaur, Jr., Lou Barlow, The Pixies, Kim Gordon, and many others) to engineer their sessions. I know I’ve already used a lot of superlative adjectives in framing this review, so to get a sense of the results of these systemic adjustments without me repeating myself, take all of those descriptors used thus far and add some more “-ers” and “-ests” to them, and you’ll get the general gist of the outcome. It’s a really, really good record, at bottom line, and its power and punch is palpable.
Opening track “Scar Tissue Abscond” leaps out to blocks so quickly that you feel like you’re in the middle of a mighty song ten seconds into the track, as Sonin exhorts that “No one will hear me scream / No one can hear me sing” over a Titanic descending riff that eventually resolves into an intricate, up-and-down, voice-and-bari figure built around the most dense lyric on the disc. “Triplet” adds a bit more swing to the mix in its early going, loosening the claustrophic hold a bit, then devolves into a fabulous skronky-meets-carny duel at the upper ends of the baritones’ range in its mid-section, before stomping itself to death in its own juices with an ending just as abrupt as the album’s start.
“Rose Hips” is the first of two nine-minute plus numbers at the back end of the record, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “pretty,” it does contain some melodic elements that sweeten the thunderous syncopations framing its construction. Sonin’s voice floats ghostly atop this one, murmuring that “it’s no use being awake when you’re not here, rose hips tease my eyes, hide . . . ” While I can’t quite say that this song (or anything that CGT do) is rich in traditional guitar solos, I will note that the extra sonic space provided by the new bass guitar does allow for more clarity and exploration in the high end of the register, and that’s used to most fine effect here.
“Hot Little Number” is almost exactly what it says it is, a crunchy stomper of a song that builds and builds to something just shy of a visceral crescendo, then stops without the expected moment of release and resolution at its tail. The unsettled taste at that point is a perfect launching point into the clamorous swirl of album-closer “Song,” which alternates silences, concussions, unresolved chords, atonal figures, and unexpected changes into a wild excursion of perfectly planned chaos. “In the sickness inside, I wrote my song,” sings Sonin in the album’s final lyrical stanza, before a three-minute feedback workout carries the record into an exhausted void of its own making. Wow.
It ain’t easy listening, that’s for sure, but it is highly rewarding, and marks another move up the quality Y-axis as Heuston, Sonin and their evolving cast of cohorts push their sonic envelope ever closer to its tearing point with each subsequent release. I am glad to note that this new record and their complete back catalog are now readily available on iTunes and other standard outlets, as they’ve been a bit hard to come by in the past on a variety of less stable platforms. I highly recommend Seven Out, Pay The Don’ts, and then encourage an exploration through the CGT archives for those of you who like to be stirred and challenged in your musical choices. And I certainly look forward to hearing what they come up with next time they hit the studio, as I expect them to swing big and connect again, making my record collection one disc better in the process.