Review Summary: CHON treads water for around 36 minutes.
There is a saying that is generally attributed to authors, which is that everyone has a book in them, but very few people have two. Most authors have a tendency to incorporate parts of their own personality or experiences into their characters, subconsciously or not. It tends to make some of their work autobiographical in the sense that they are using their art as a vessel for their own identity. Everyone has their own story to tell. But with music, it’s a bit different. You need time to mesh together as a band, figure out your strengths, weaknesses, master your instrument, find your sound, create a cohesive product, and then continue to work at your art to gradually improve. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but most bands do not write masterpiece after masterpiece from their first album. You can write a thousand pages of a book without improvement from page to page, but it’s hard to make the same comparison to an instrument; if you play the guitar for a thousand hours, you will improve. It is simply the nature of a mechanical skill versus a purely artistic one.
So, how does this relate to CHON? In my eyes, CHON finally carved out their voice and found exactly what they were meant to create on Homey. That perfect blend of beachy, relaxed music with indisputably impressive guitar work, tight drumming, and grooving bass on nearly every track. While they experimented a bit with some electronic-heavy songs such as Nayhoo and Berry Streets, the songs that seem to stand as the culmination of their sound and their identity are tracks such as Checkpoint, No Signal, The Space, Continue?, Here and There, and Waterslide. These songs encapsulate exactly what CHON has been developing towards since their initial EP, running parallel on the lines of math rock, but gradually straying from the realm of technical death metal and into the progressive guitar virtuosity and math-based rhythms that came to bring their sound to its peak in Homey. It practically oozes with the closest thing we will ever to the tangible form of a California summer, and that is an incredible thing.
But this is not an album review for Homey. This is for their self-titled album, CHON. This is the second book. And, unfortunately, it seems the quartet has expended themselves on their former effort. In comparison, the album does not fall short in terms of technicality or groovy math rock, as the band producing anything that isn’t fully laden with these elements is a farce within itself. Hansel and the Camarena brothers are simply too skilled to create something completely unpalatable. Rather, the emotional effectiveness and memorability of this album is hardly present. There are highlights, no doubt; Gift, If, and Petal are all solid tracks that are an enjoyable listen with a few twists and turns in the melodies, but the structure of these songs is one of the primary detractors. They seem to follow an almost rigid pattern in a way that you can predict exactly where the music will go next, which is something rarely felt when listening to the majority of Homey. This sort of structure burdens the album immensely, as part of the appeal of CHON has always been their ability to create melodies that are simultaneously memorable and initially surprising. There are no moments on this album that hit like the riff at 1:24 in The Space or give paradoxically warm chills like the solo in Checkpoint. There are not any particularly bad songs on self-titled, but the album, at many times, feels like an excessively rehearsed jam session that begins and ends before any real progress is made.
Perhaps the true highlight of the album is Pitch Dark, which represents the greatest deviation from the other tracks because it features, for lack of a better word, a darker tone. It still follows the same CHON-style of melodies that inexplicably sound like they were cut from jagged butter, but has quite a pleasant contrast from what we expect from the band. It feels like this track is set on the same sunny beach as the entirety of Homey, but the melody is rather illuminated by beams of moonlight, as the title somewhat suggests. If there is any song you may find stuck in your head after the album runs its course, I would suspect it would be this. As for the remainder, the tracks incestuously run together to a point where an odd time signature or 7-string sweep hits like a Tempur-Pedic pillow. Yes, the impact is there, but it’s dulled to a point that it feels like a blunt imitation of CHON. Instead of the actual evolution witnessed from Newborn Sun to Grow and from Grow to Homey, there is a lot of unfortunate regression into what can best be described as an album that seemed rushed.
When I listened to Continue? for the first time, I remember hearing the final solo starting around 2:32 and feeling a strange sense of instant nostalgia, as if this was the last time we would hear the beautiful technicality of the band noodling around on their instruments as incredibly gifted musicians with a penchant for infusing feel-good vibes into every facet of their art. At the time, I was worried that they would delve further down the electronic path to garner more attention from the general public (read: selling out), but instead we were given an album that is simply flat. While I still believe that CHON is not without potential and still has some gas left in the tank, I would be equally unsurprised if Homey is CHON’s magnum opus and, consequently, their one book. A truly great band can create multiple shades of identity. It’s now up to CHON to figure out what that evolution would sound like before they stagnate into reprints of their previous works.