Divorced of the context of little green men in flying saucers, “alien” is a word both simple and provocative. It's a more extreme version of “foreign”, really, in that something which is alien is so unfamiliar and unlike anything you've experienced before, you have no context for it. What I mean is, I don't know anything about, say, Bollywood films, but despite their foreignness I can still understand them in the context of other movies. Something truly alien would be utterly unknowable from any context I could approach it.
In that regard, the new album from Cymbals Eat Guitars, Lenses Alien, possesses an intriguing title. The “Alien” part draws your immediate intention but it's the “Lenses” part that is key. This music isn't so utterly foreign as to be unfamiliar and unlike anything you've experienced before, yet it does offer some strange, non-traditional songs which take time to understand. This is a record of blurry photographs of UFOs or abstract art, things which could be upside down or sideways for all you know. It's also a record which never seems to add up or make sense, constantly eluding you and only offering a few standard choruses or hooks to latch onto. Lyrics bubble to the surface of your consciousness as you listen to it, only the last few evocative words of a given line such as “everything, everything changes”, “corner store clerk, who never looked up”, and “milky cataracts peel(?)” managing to catch your attention as you drift along.
Mind you, in the case of Lenses Alien, this elusive, formless quality is pulled off with ease, suggesting that my initial worries about the band being a touch too derivative were groundless. I've listened to this album a dozen or so times but it keeps surprising me with its twists and turns. Much like Sunset Rubdown's excellent Random Spirit Lover, this is a record bursting with winding linear songs. Rarely is a section, hook, or chorus repeated, meaning you'll have to listen to it a few times and take it all in as a whole work rather than a collection of songs. Furthermore, Lenses Alien may peak with its epic opening track, but the way the rest of the songs flow together and are paced, the record may as well just be one long song anyway.
Lenses Alien is Cymbals Eat Guitars coming into their own. It may not be their masterpiece, because I think they have still better things ahead of them, but it is at least the band shedding most of their obvious influences and establishing their sound. While Why There Are Mountains may boast more and better hooks, Lenses Alien is the stronger and more interesting album. I'm most impressed that this record also turned out to be the band pushing themselves while still leaving in those dreamy, catatonia-inducing wall-of-sound things they conjure up every few songs—I think they do it at least twice on 'Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)', in fact—without turning into arch-experimentalists who alienate (pun intended) their audience.
Lenses Alien is a perfect follow-up to a flawed and not wholly original sounding debut. It leaves me confident in where the band are now and genuinely interested in their future. While not an outright masterpiece, it is easily one of 2011's most accomplished records.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5