by Brian J. Audette
There must exist an alternate universe wherein Nirvana‘s Kurt Cobain and My Bloody Valentine‘s Kevin Shields grew up together, formed a band, and took the world by storm. Quantum physics being what it is and the separation of time and distance between Cobain and Shields being so small (astronomically speaking), it has to have happened somewhere in the multiverse. While we’ll never really know exactly what that pairing might sound like, I’d like to think it might be something like Austin’s Carl Sagan’s Skate Shoes and as such I’ve decided heretofore to refer to their noisy, yet nuanced wall of sound as Grunge Gaze.
I first heard about Carl Sagan’s Skate Shoes about two years ago when OVRLD and myself put on our Out of Step punk show at Beerland. CSSS was the only band on the bill that I hadn’t heard of before and at the time the two piece had just released their four song debut EP/demo Demoage. The Descendents reference title alone was enough to interest me and their sound proved rather unique, but seeing them play was something else completely. Imagine the layering and wall of sound on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless but coming solely from one guitarist and a drummer. That night put Carl Sagan’s Skate Shoes on my map and they’re finally back (this time as a three piece) with their first, self-titled LP.
The album opens with the bold and raucous sound of “(I)” a track that literally sounds like an artful mashup of Loveless era MBV and early Nirvana. A wall of what sounds like 300 guitars roars in shortly after the track begins, accompanied by a lazy rhythm and Steve Pike’s throaty shout-growl. It’s in-your-face and it takes a moment to get used to, but it works to get the blood pumping and prime your ears for the unique sounds to come. “Sundance Kid” follows this up with a more reserved approach. Saddled with a clean riff up front and sultry rhythm, this is a country grunge tune complete with cowboy chords and a wild west narrative. Worlds collide when the chorus kicks in and Carl Sagan’s Skate Shoes brings the noise with layers of effects and some serious slide guitar action. It’s a paradoxical pairing, but it still manages to rock.
After a short tune full of dissonant guitar sludge and lyrical angst in the form of “Monahans” the album shifts gears again with “Under the Texas Sun.” The track opens with a grimy bass line, a twinkly guitar riff, half-time drums, and near spoken vocals. It feels so much like a lost Slint track or something off of Failure‘s first LP that if you told me that CSSS had gone back in time to have Steve Albini produce it during the early 90’s, I wouldn’t think twice about it. “Smoke” shows up next in the rotation, the only song reproduced here from off of their 2014 demo. Not much changes that can’t be explained by better production, though the guitars do get a little more flange on the back end of the track.
“Turning Gears” splits the difference between the quieter fare and the full on noise walls elsewhere as we approach the tail end of the album. It’s a racing bit of music driven forward by Jacob Cruz’s solid drumming and a sludgy guitar/bass unison. “#B” brings the gloom next, as it slowly plods along to the thick, wet strums of Rob Glynn’s bass, Pike’s vocals barely more than a whisper until the song releases in a musical explosion in its final minute. As the album draws to a close, “Gambit” recalls the straight up fury of album opener “(I)” and “Speak” (in a way) combines everything we’ve heard up to this point: that early 90’s Albini-style grime, the post hardcore furiosity, the half-stoned Cobain-like shouted lyrics, and a wall of effects and guitars that just sort of peters out in a drone of fuzz.
As a full length debut, Carl Sagan’s Skate Shoes takes the promise of their EP/demo and expands on it, but where they’ll go and grow from here remains to be seen. Where the band really excels for me is when they slow things down and ditch the 300 guitars for a scant 20 or so. In these moments they almost remind me of Dinosaur Jr. by way of Alice in Chains: thoughtful, but sparse lyrics over threadbare rhythms and stoned beats, with a hint of menace lurking around every riff. While songs like “(I)” and “Gambit” have their place, it’s “Sundance Kid” and “Under the Texas Sun” that feel freshest and get me excited about this band’s future. What’s clear right now on this LP is that Carl Sagan’s Skate Shoes lack no confidence and their sound is incandescent. If the band keeps striking those simultaneously fresh and nostalgic chords, who knows how far they can go.
Brian Audette lives somewhere in Austin within a pillow fort made of broken dreams. He only comes out to see shows and buy beer. He has a surprisingly well maintained lawn and is using it to breed an army of attack mosquitoes with which to take over the world. Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @bjaudette.