Self-released in a scuff-ready digipak that’s quick to take on the folds and creases of an oft-visited LP, the self-titled debut full-length from London’s Crystal Head sounds like the trio made origami out of their influences. It’s like guitarist/vocalist Tom Cameron (also keys) and the cousinly rhythm section of bassist Jon Deal and drummer Dean Deal took a sheet of paper made from all their favorite bands and turned it into the album’s 11 tracks, and if that sounds like a familiar process – certainly they’re not the first band to find impetus in the work of others; everyone does it – let the origami analogy stand as a demonstration of the care and precision they put into it. Crystal Head’s Crystal Head, released toward the end of 2011, is both stylized and brutish, working ‘90s hard rock into modern heavy and quickly establishing themselves as an act both aware of the past and working toward their own future. Specific moments on the record are directly relatable to the work of others, beginning with the infectious transposition of the riff progression to Karma to Burn’s “20” that shows up on catchy opener “Perfect Weirdo,” the first of several memorable landmarks spread throughout the album. Several of these songs I recognized instantly from Crystal Head’s set at Desertfest London, even having only heard them that one time, and though that’s true of songs like “Perfect Weirdo,” “Freeloader,” which follows, “True to Say,” “Mad Dog” and “First and Last,” I’ll say as well that the other songs included here have distinct personalities that come through and are well arranged to give the album an overarching flow. The arrangement of the material, which was recorded in the remote Sawmills Studio in Cornwall by the band and Tom Joyce, builds momentum quick through the first six tracks and then uses the last five to expand those ideas sonically and stylistically, giving a sense of both careful construction and vibrant diversity.
That structure is also something of an anomaly in terms of how it sets up the album. The model would seem to be a vinyl split between side A and B, but the flow works best in a linear sense – on a CD or digital format, in other words – where one modus immediately follows the next. Appropriately enough, it’s also the centerpiece track, “True to Say,” acting as the turning point in Crystal Head’s methodology, and where it and the five tracks preceding total 17:40, the five that follow hit 24:52, making the break between sides less cleanly perceptible. They don’t seem confused about it at all, blazing and swaggering their way through under-three-minute early cuts like “Jeremiad,” “Wouldn’t You Know” and the instrumental “The Fox,” which build on the model set forth by “Perfect Weirdo” of paramount hooks and engaging nods at their influences, the most clearly prevalent of which is Queens of the Stone Age. Even on the chorus of “Perfect Weirdo,” Cameron works a Josh Homme-style moan into his delivery, and that comes up elsewhere on the album as well, to excellent effect. “Freeloader” is more aggressive, and probably a specific person lyrically, but vague enough in the tradition of Filter’s “Hey Man Nice Shot” to be applicable in its tale of “the death of an alcoholic,” as Cameron croons in the opening line. The chorus is mean like Meantime-era Helmet and the vocals come across likewise rougher, but the first sense of the skillful craft put into Crystal Head’s arrangements comes through when Deal joins Cameron for an extended verse later into the song. It’s a subtle touch, but just enough to indicate the meticulousness that goes into making something sound so easy. As to Cameron’s Homme-isms, they’re manifold and show up sometimes in the start-stop guitar, but like the rest of the band’s directly-attributable elements, they’re put to work in a context that renders them fresher than perhaps might come across in a review picking them out and analyzing on a track-by-track basis. This is another way the speed with which Crystal Head’s first six songs play out helps them. They’re over before you know what’s hit you.
Both “Jeremiad” and “Wouldn’t You Know” follow an accessible course that finds Cameron working rhythmic lead lines on top of the strong heavy grooves from the Deals. Forward push is never sacrificed in either, even as “Wouldn’t You Know” turns its two-part chorus into something of a curve, making sub-psychedelic delivers of the single line “Pull me into Wonderland” one of Crystal Head’s most lasting moments. Taken on its own, neither is the pinnacle of the record, but they serve their purpose fittingly and rush the listener through to the next jab. The swagger in “Wouldn’t You Know” bleeds well into “The Fox,” which isn’t really long enough to be indulgent, but works efficiently to highlight a short build, in turn serving as the lead-in for “True to Say.” Deal’s bass rumble and subsequent progressive complexity is the first hint of a Tool influence that comes again later on closer “Night of Broken Glass,” and the transition into “True to Say” alone makes it. And for its part, “True to Say” is probably the highlight of the album. Cameron works in some piano alongside his guitar and is at his most Homme-ian vocally and riff-wise. Electronic drums start out, but Deal soon picks up the beat, and the song is both a party and somewhat sinister, Cameron going falsetto in the chorus for “true” and repeating “to say” à la Nirvana’s “Breed.” The transition back to the verse is a thundering slowdown, and it’s the first indication that Crystal Head have a speed in them other than “go,” however quickly they pick back up with the next verse. The groove also serves as the outro, which makes the shift to the more subdued start of “Truth Hurts” smoother. At 5:40, it’s the longest song so far by almost two full minutes, and the quiet verse gives Crystal Head their first real opportunity to show a dynamic sensibility as the louder guitars kick in for the chorus. Deal and Cameron share vocals effectively on that chorus, the lines “Careful what you wish for/What you wish for is coming true,” sitting well on the lumbering groove, as Cameron moves to a Maynard James Keenan-style shout to emphasize each “what you.” A quiet guitar solo break is as close as Crystal Head come to jamming, and though it never loses its sense of purpose, the notion is made plain that the band are operating on a different wavelength than they were just five minutes earlier.
Still, it’s not awkward, even as they move further into melancholic minimalism with the near-Radiohead levels of quiet that “Hookem-Snivey” brings about. Deal handles the acoustic guitar and Cameron the wistful moans, and Dean works in some lighter percussion behind. It’s a setup, of course. The start-stop thrust of “Mad Dog” lands heavier-footed for the lead-in it gets, and the swagger of Crystal Head’s early stretch returns, even if the song is still longer than everything else in the first six tracks save for “Freeloader,” and it comes through in both the jangle of the guitar and the air push of Deal’s toms. It’s more brash than posturing as masculine, but it ends with a bark, and that always strikes as trite, though with as fast as “First and Last” gets underway, it’s hard to hold it against them. Cameron goes back to putting his lead lines to work as rhythm tracks while Deal fills out behind, and verse seems to be the payoff, or at least the next stage of “Mad Dog”‘s sexualized throb. The chorus is hard pop worthy of Foo Fighters, and though neither “Mad Dog” nor “First and Last” fully return the kind of momentum the first several tracks were able to achieve, with 7:22 closer “Night of Broken Glass” following, neither were they trying to – the album’s progression was meant to end somewhere other than the place it began. “Night of Broken Glass” is sprawling compared to everything that’s come before it, Jon working in his best bass fills and Dean channeling his inner Danny Carey for some impressive tom work playing off an oddly-timed start-stop guitar line and consistent bass in the back half of the song. There’s a brief payoff and then feedback cuts out to end the album, Crystal Head wasting no time to tell what they’ve already shown – namely that their breadth of influence isn’t limited to the mainstays of what’s commonly called stoner rock and that they’re able even on their first record (they’ve reportedly been together a while and operated under several other names) to hone a personality that’s both individual and familiar to their audience. Even though one might recognize some of the pieces from which the album is constructed, I have a hard time coming up with an argument against heavy rock songs that are this well-written, and I look forward to keeping with Crystal Head as they continue down the fascinating creative path they’ve set for themselves with these tracks. Recommended.
Tags: Crystal Head, London, UK, Unsigned bands