With Cymbals Eat Guitars, not much is predictable. Two minutes into "Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)," the first track from their 2011 album Lenses Alien, and you've heard three or four slices of music — complicated ones, segments that could be built into entire songs, with wandering, elliptical melodies, traces of stable keys here and there and guitarist Joseph D'Agostino's lyrics, which can be quite literal ("shot through the head / I'm coming up on an overpass / Rifle Eyesight was lying low in the high grass").
The 8-plus minute "Rifle Eyesight," twice as long as most of the songs that follow it, is the outlier on Lenses Alien. You hear feedback meltdowns, clean guitar shards, blocks of chiming, triadic piano and melodic bass playing. (Agostino also writes lyrics that maybe got an assist from an online anagram generator: "At that bone altar / oh I'm hollow and I'm bankrupt / palpate its baby teeth nodules with insensate fingers / that raised ranch lambent bay windows say benign.") It's also a link to Why There Are Mountains, their self-produced 2009, while the other songs point toward a less proggy future. (A more recent single, "Hawk Highway," belongs to this other world too.)
"I think the direction we're going in now is toward a more traditional realm of songwriting," says bassist Matthew Whipple. "But for lack of a better way of describing it, we just like challenging ourselves. We like writing songs that sound more like songs, more like what the general music-consuming public understands as songs."
It's a difficult thing to pull off, says Whipple. "It takes a lot more editing." They aren't trying make a Cymbals Eat Guitars pop record, he says, but some of the newer material is definitely more accessible, with tempos that hang around for more than four or eight bars and fewer odd time signatures. "Everything is still very intricate: chord progressions, the interplay. It still sounds like us, but maybe a little less cerebral."
The band grew out of Manahawkin, New Jersey, where Agostino and drummer Matthew Miller went to high school. Two musicians — keyboard player Daniel Baer and bassist Neil Berenholz — joined the group and subsequently left. In 2009, Why There Are Mountains was named Best New Music in Pitchfork. With Whipple and keyboard player Brian Hamilton they toured extensively before entering the studio, newly signed to Barsuk Records.
Whipple says there wasn't much pressure when they got down to recording Lenses. "I would say there was more of a time crunch between when we finished touring on Mountains — which was about two years of touring — we had about six months to finish writing and recording," Whipple says. "In terms of pressure to follow it up critically, there's not much you can do to control that. But for everyone involved it was a different experience." Lenses Alien was the first time these four musicians recorded together. "I think that aspect of the experience was more central to how it took shape in the end," Whipple says. "There wasn't much discussion of, 'Oh, how are we going to achieve a level of critical acclaim?' or whatever."
The band recorded "Hawk Highway" while being filmed for "Masters From Their Day," a video-blog series that documents bands and producers in the studio. The 8-minute clip shows D'Agostino, Whipple, Miller and Hamilton interacting with producer John Agnello, who worked with them on Lenses. "Hawk Highway" was a song they rehearsed only twice. The band spent the day with Agnello and the MFTD crew, documenting the process of recording the song, making edits, overdubs and everything else involved. "It was strange," Whipple says, "having cameras around and being expected to give your take about certain things that were going on when you are trying to concentrate on making the song as good as it can possibly be. But actually the guys who filmed it were pretty good about blending into the scenery, so it wasn't invasive in any way." Agnello seems very much in control of the session. "He knows how we work very well, and he knows what to say to us," Whipple says. "If he feels like part of a song can work better a different way, he's very good at framing that in a way that doesn't really seem like he's steering the direction of the song, but just offering guidance."
Cymbals Eat Guitars takes part in New London's I Am Festival this Saturday, with punk pioneers Death, Connecticut legend/former Miracle Legion singer Mark Mulcahy and dozens of other artists. Going forward, Whipple says CEG has no specific plans about how they'll record or who will produce the next album, but they'd be very happy working with Agnello again.
"We keep in touch," Whipple says. "It's something that we've talked about, but we have no plans set in stone about the actual recording. So at the risk of making an official announcement, we'd love to work with John on many, many recordings and we hope we get to do so with this next record. We tend to get bogged down in little details and he's very good about getting us to not only make decisions but make the right decisions and move on."
I Am Festival
Sept. 7, free (donations accepted), Downtown New London, iamfest.org