Review Summary: within this review, I make reference to David Lynch and Trent Reznor
Much has been made, at least by the small section of the populace that know them, of Tenement's chameleonic abilities. Most bands would be satisfied just playing punk with pop inflections (but not, as their frontman insists, pop-punk) as well as Tenement do. Amos Pitsch's alluring voice and deceptively simple guitar playing are enough to coast by; pair his offbeat, occasionally confronting lyrics with an airtight rhythm section and they'd be set for life. But the songs of Bruised Music Volume One
and Napalm Dream
, their earliest released recordings, hint at a band with ambition who hadn't found the drive to realise it.
It's impressive how quickly they did. Napalm Dream
and The Blind Wink
are largely 30-minute blasts of disaffected middle America punk-and-pop jams, but there's hints of something larger lurking, whether the spoken word- and early Trail of Dead-inflected "Schadenfreude", the appealingly weird "Medical Curiosity", or in the first quintessential Tenement moment when "Hard To Say" just grinds down into its composite parts at the end, juddering feedback and piano thumps all over the place. (I award the designation not only for how it basically prefaces Predatory Headlights
, but out of respect for the time it scared the absolute shit out of me in the dark, traversing the creepy bottom floor of my rental house). Tenement took a four-year break from releases after these two-in-a-year albums, a hiatus long enough to basically condemn a simpler band in the field to obscurity. When they came back, it was with a monstrous double album/fever dream that sounded like the disaffected youths of 2011 had been to hell and brought back field recordings of it, As Above, So Below
"The album, to me, is like walking past a house at night and peering into the front window while in motion", Amos said about the idea of the longform release as opposed to a single. Much like that brief transitory glimpse, you get an idea of the outline of the thing but it's not at all clear what's lurking inside the darkened hallways. In fact, the defining feature of Predatory Headlights
is how well its weirdness is integrated, how perfectly this album flows in order to clearly define your boundaries of safety and then rips the carpet out from underneath. Sure, it starts with Reznorian piano piece "Theme of the Cuckoo" which sounds like a lost fragment from a Fincher movie. But you've almost forgotten that a couple songs in as each flies by, always ending at the perfect length, as massive hooks spring off crunchy, beautifully-produced guitar runs. "Crop Circle Nation" is an early highlight, muscling an obscenely catchy chorus out of a repeated "we belong somewhere else / belong somewhere else", while "The Shriveled Finger" and "Harvest Time (Has Come)" pay tribute to the band's punky 2011 sound. Then, on "Ants + Flies", the ground first falls completely away. It's clear the band have no interest in compromise or accessibility as the desolate Tom Waits-ian cut drones on and on, Amos singing out of key over an old and detuned piano and a sickening background hum that just grows and grows – before dipping straight into the album's most accessible and poppy run of songs in a transition that should not work half as well as it does. This is a trick Tenement pull a lot, and you want to be angry about it, but it takes justification to make a 78-minute album and this band is damn fine at switching styles at the drop of a hat.
The album's most important stretch comes right after that sunny, catchy run. "A Frightening Place for Normal People" is impossible to overlook when you talk this album, for good reason, being a nine-and-a-half improv that lands halfway between some Lynchian dark ambient and a tribal drum summoning ritual you might hear wandering out on a reservation in a place you really shouldn't be. It's the song you'd show people to get the conversation going if you were a sociopath, to prove Tenement's art-punk chameleon credos, their fucking insane ambition and unwillingness to compromise for it; "Ants + Flies" starts sounding like a lead single when Amos whispers "tip the witch... into... the river" seven minutes in. But my favourite part of "Frightening Place" is when it starts and ends. That's not a dig at the song, which is the most uproariously bold shit I've heard on a punk-with-elements-of-pop album, but a deep respect for how it's bookmarked by the two-part "Heavy Odor" / "Licking a Wound". These are intimate acoustic confessionals that would slide right in to an early Manchester Orchestra album, at least before the former devolves into a strings reprise of "Theme of the Cuckoo" to tee up the ten-minute horror movie that's about to follow.
This is my justification for claiming Predatory Headlights
as one of the decade's best releases. Hear how devastating it is when the lovely romanticism of "Heavy Odor" is replaced by Modest Mouse-existentialism on "Licking a Wound", with lines like "you've reached the final page, no-one can ignore / the only page in any book that no-one's read before […] a pestilent infection will never get cooled / you're licking a wound it's too late to soothe". Hear how the shadow of "A Frightening Place" then hangs over the rest of the album after it - how groovy/sexy jams "Hive of Hives" and "Keep Your Mouth Shut" descend into horror movie-string screeches then snap straight back for the female vocal-assisted choruses, how the "Cuckoo" theme returns once again for "The Dishwasher's Meal" even more dissonant and off-key. If you'd somehow got bored and skipped through to the album's final stretch, you might just believe Tenement were the band you'd started out thinking they were, but there's still plenty of personality in a band who can bust a minute-long pop jam like "Near You" and still bring Lifes Rich Pageant
-era R.E.M. harmonic sensibilities to closer "Afraid of the Unknown".
Themes of childhood and the fears thereof are what dominate Predatory Headlights
- the frightened child on a blood-soaked street, the whispering kids, the dull joy waiting for them in the future - at least until it hits that defining trilogy of songs and grows up fast. Maybe it's all the Lynchian stylings, but I find myself thinking of doppelgangers a lot when I listen to this album: "Theme of the Cuckoo" becoming more atonal with each rendition; "Heavy Odor" and "Licking a Wound" mirroring one another; even "Hive of Hives" and "Keep Your Mouth Shut" seem to be close cousins separated by an interlude. It's my only remote explanation for an album title that seems to have nothing to do with its album. I don't think Tenement can or will make a doppelganger of an album like this – I can't exactly blame them, I hardly believe an album like this exists in the first place - but they're a band in a unique position to do whatever the hell they now want. They can expand on their dark ambient side for a full work, as they did in 2017 and 2018 for more Reznor & Ross-style soundtracks; they can switch back to default and write short, sweet tunes as they did for the underwhelming Self-Titled Album
. But Tenement are best when both sides are fighting for control of the host, when their punk-and-pop twists itself into darker and darker places until it comes back around, not unblemished with traces of the abyssal places it has been. Whatever incarnation they find themselves summoning, Tenement are your art-punk Bandcamp dream band, too cool for genre labels that lump them in with the Warped scene but not too cool to make some of the catchiest music you've heard in your life. While scaring the fucking shit out of you, naturally.