It is a well-documented phenomenon that most bands become more accessible and streamlined the longer their careers go on: focus on melody and rewarding song structures overwrite the desire for off-the-wall ridiculousness, and bands become more “mature,” a word we use in a tongue-in-cheek manner here at Heavy Blog to poke fun of the sort of increased self-importance that occasionally comes hand-in-hand with this gradual change in sound. Popular examples include Mastodon, Between the Buried and Me, The Contortionist, Cynic, and The Dillinger Escape Plan; all of these bands simplified and reduced the intensity and abrasion of their sound over time as they lost interest in writing good parts and replaced that with a desire to write good songs. This shouldn’t be taken as a steadfast rule (although it’s pretty true and much easier to find examples of this than counterexamples) or a judgement of quality; there are bands that do this well and bands that do this poorly, and oftentimes whether this is deemed acceptable depends more on what a fan comes to the band for than anything else by a large margin.
Tera Melos could undoubtedly be propped up as an example of this. This Californian trio has been an institution in the domain of math rock for a decade now, and in the time between their debut self-titled album and the most recent LP, 2013’s X’ed Out, the group has changed in sound from being one of the most out-there, labyrinthine, and bizarre groups in the genre to fluidly combining influences from surf rock, shoegaze, and noise rock with a base of math-pop for a sound that is far more accessible and straightforward.
To hear what I mean about the change in this band’s sound over time, listen to these two tracks: the first, “40 Rods to the Hog’s Head,” comes from the Drugs to the Dear Youth EP. It’s a perfect example of their earlier phase: dueling tapped guitar leads bounce off one another, the basswork barely accentuates what little rhythm might be present, and the drums are probably hovering somewhere around being 90% fills. There’s a sense of carefree, open-ended chaos to the whole thing, and across the sprawling eight minutes, there’s barely any repetition or cycling back around to previous melodies. It would sound like a jam session if there wasn’t the occasional bit that lets the listener know most of this was planned out in advance.
Upon listening to “Weird Circles,” the difference in sound is obvious and almost jarring. Now there are vocals in the mix, the rhythms are much tighter and more obvious, there’s clear melodies to follow, and – dare I say – even a definable structure to the song. Bits of weird electronic pedal-fuckery emerge here and there, and the sense of off-time fun is still very much present, but the band has gone through a clear evolution.
The trend of moving towards more accessible songs certainly has not reversed itself in any way on Trash Generator. If anything, this is the band’s most contained and straightforward record to date, which presents something of a wedge for the fanbase. Those only interested in the crazy, off-the-walls Tera Melos of the mid-to-late-2000’s will find very little to enjoy in the controlled atmosphere of this record, perhaps even less than X’ed Out or Patagonian Rats. However, for those that can find merit in the band’s move towards poppier songs, there’s quite a lot to enjoy on this album.
The power trio of Nick Reinhart, Nathan Latona, and John Clardy is as locked in and completely synchronous as ever. Melodies twist and turn in unexpected directions and repeat in on themselves ad nauseam, and a harder edge to the band in the form of more heavily distorted guitars and minor-key rhythms makes this the darkest and heaviest album the group has done to date, something helped by the fact that focus is mostly kept exactly where it needs to be. With the exception of “GR30A11,” a short interlude track that shows off Tera Melos’ penchant for glitchy, spasmodic electronics, and “A Universal Gonk,” a six-minute suite of varying sounds that includes bitcrushed guitars and a horn section, this is absolutely the most focused and streamlined record the band has done to date. This is both a positive, since not going off-course helps maintain sight of the song’s path, and a negative, since the tracks can be pretty predictable at times.
Although Trash Generator is absolutely in keeping with the band’s identity thus far, what it represents could either alienate or enliven fans – possibly both at the same time. What’s lost in the turn away from chaos is gained in accessibility and catchiness, and while this isn’t a move everyone will be on board with, it shows that Tera Melos is absolutely not content with resting on their laurels. Is this the best record in their discography? No, it’s not. But is it a satisfying, well-crafted record that shows off the best parts of this group’s current sonic iteration? Absolutely. And frankly, given the collective talent of Tera Melos, that’s more than enough to make Trash Generator a great album.
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Tera Melos releases Trash Generator through Sargent House on August 25th. You can preorder it digitally through their bandcamp, and find merch on the online stores listed on the Sargent House website.