Ava Mendoza might not be a household name but, in certain circles, her name carries a lot of weight. This guitar virtuoso (who first worked on the classic guitar) has worked with the likes of John Zorn, flitting around the avant-garde musical scene, collaborating with many musicians, always bringing her unique voice to the table. She also spearheads Unnatural Ways, a wildly off-kilter band that never seem satisfied with staying on one genre for too long. Their third release, The Paranoia Party, features not only their unique approach to genre and instrumentation but also, for the first time, Mendoza’s own vocals. What is the end result of such a step forward though? And how does this all fit in with the sci-fi concept which fuels the album?
The answer is complicated, just like the album. The Paranoia Party and, indeed, Unnatural Ways’ entire career, can lay claim to influences as varied as surf rock, jazz, noise rock, progressive metal, and more. The end result is a bewildering take of grooves, riffs, and scratchy guitars which recall King Crimson, Mr. Bungle, and other such alumni of dazzling transitions and psychedelic vibes. This the album brings in plenty; “Most of All We Love to Spy”, the longest track on the album, is chock full of starts, stops, and messy time signatures, kind a kind of “ordered chaos” which invites the listener to dive deeper and deeper into its midst. Above it all, for most of the track (except for the prominent instrumental break in the middle of it), Mendoza’s vocals intone a kind of punk sensibility, powerful, pissed off, and direct at the same time.
The themes explored on the album, channeled via a science fiction story about being alien, appropriately channel contemporary political breakdown and its ramifications. This works quite well with the instruments themselves, as all of them, and especially the guitar, display a kind of rough exterior that works best with concepts of collapse, migration, and oppression. The bass is exceptionally good in this regard; not only do its varied grooves lead much to the stability which this album needs within its experimentation, its tones are also complementary to the narrative of struggle conveyed throughout the album.
However, as a whole, The Paranoia Party seems to lack something. It’s hard to say if this is because it’s too weird or not weird enough. On the first count, some parts of it feel off-center just for the sake of that, not moving things forward and just basking in their oddity (the intro to “Trying to Pass” is a good example, all scattered bass notes and churning guitars). On the second count, the album paradoxically almost feels safe at times. That is, its weirdness follows the path of flight that we’d expect; it rebels in ways which we’ve already seen before, from Mendoza and from the milieu in which the band operate. You can almost feel the oddity coming or, rather, the form it is about to take.
Putting that aside, there is admittedly much to enjoy on the album. Every part is performed with passion and technical expertise, both of which we’d expect from musicians working at the circles these guys operate in. However, at the end of it, one wishes that more personal boundaries were pushed and broken. Perhaps the stamp of those selfsame circles is felt too heavily, an avant-garde album very much concerned with sound avant-garde. For those who relish the flavor, this is a tasty bite indeed. But for those who are looking for new nuance to this tried and true “rebel” of a taste, something basic and daring seems missing.
Unnatural Way’s The Paranoia Party releases on March 22nd via Sleeping Giant Glossolalia. You can pre-order it the labe’s Bandcamp above.