Review Summary: Family barbeque blockbuster
I thought about my problems / Everyone wants to solve them
But problems are problems / And these problems are mine
Where would any of us be without our faults? The overhead quotation, delivered early on in Trophy Scars’ pivotal 2009 album Bad Luck
, correlates eerily well with why this band, even at their finest, are such a struggle to approach with anything close to critical distance. Problems
? Don’t get me started on problems: nothing about this band makes a lick of sense on paper. They fold the bargoer’s blues textbook into every noir cliché under the sun and moon, only to see it off with gratuitous levels of swagger and residual turbulence from their post-hardcore origins. It’s a naked pastiche, performed with peak bombast and matched by absurdly kitsch subject matter. Bad Luck
’s caricature fictions demanded total suspension of disbelief one moment, only to slice through personal distance with an autobiographical knife the next. Their 2014 magnum opus Holy Vacants
went one step further and required its audience to buy into a full concept narrative that smushed a heap of literal dead angels, an all-consuming Bonnie-and-Clyde relationship, and the bloody fountain of youth together with B-movie relish. That’s just the writing. Phwoar, boy; frontman Jerry Jones’ vocal style is fudge-grade icing on the poison tart: the man draws from a Tom Waits-inspired gravel pile, waxing bloodthirsty and romantic in turn with unmistakable earnestness and encroaching the borderlines of Sesame Street and Treasure Island to no small comic effect. It’s often hard to tell whether the band’s true focus is on Jones’ theatrics or the barnstorming blues jams supporting him; most often, the volatile interplay between the two is entertaining enough to wipe that question off the table.
That’s at the heart of the deal you make if you bother with Trophy Scars. Considerations of good taste, kitsch and cliché, the ever-shifting line between innovation and pastiche, and wholesale self-awareness are just part of the baggage you’re best advised to dump. The band make sensational work of their ridiculous qualities, committing to their sound with such conviction, such emotional extremities and gloriously tasteless flair, with Jerry Jones’ brash pretensions as such a disarmingly relatable authorial presence that their work is ultimately a valuable lesson in how precious a shred of good faith can be. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry the first time round, say, the point where “Nola”’s protagonist murders his extorting ex-hitgirl ex over a hair-raising barrage of staccato chords, or the all-out assault of “Everything Disappearing”’s brokenhearted string finale. Trophy Scars gamble with superlatives, but they have such talents for larger-than-life pathos that they reap tremendous gains from them. There’s enough self-conscious pandering bullshit in the world already and I think many of us owe this band a greater debt than we realise for having the balls to unpack such goofy pockets of imagination to such unapologetically outlandish lengths. Get over the cognitive dissonance of whether or not they should
be good, and you’ll appreciate that they’ve actually brought something quite special to the table - the kind of thing that can only be hell or salvation to a jaded listener.
So there we are: anyone still tuned in to Trophy Scars has likely made peace with how they take the cringe potential of their problems
in their stride; anyone new to the party now knows what they’re in for. Why the recap? Well, it turns out that their long-heralded album #5 Astral Pariah
adjusts the band’s fundamentals further than any release since Bad Luck
, though not always in obvious ways. On the face of it, the core ingredients are still there: we have the band’s trademark blues guitarsenal and their gritty theatrics, we have a concept (ruthless cowboy antihero embarks on bloody revenge crusade against his entire family), and we have Mr. Jones crooning and growling and seething like the fate of the universe rests on you fetching him a drink and fixing his bow-tie. As always, the concept demands a few aesthetic changes, but I doubt the band’s forays into psychedelia (“Astral Pariah”), spaghetti Western (“Mother”) or bluegrass (“Pestilent Star”) will be controversial for anyone familiar with their basic framework. These new touches are smoothly integrated for the most part; the only point I found detractively twee was the overbearing yeehaw-ism of “Father (Pt I)”’s fiddle line, and even that is at least situationally justified. Same old Scars, huh?
Not quite. Where past albums were indulgent montages of self-announcing epic moments, Astral Pariah
goes by like lightning. Its peaks seem to end the moment they start; its downtime shakes you off the moment you settle into it. Hell, it’s only a minute longer than the band’s post-hardcore high watermark Goodnight Alchemy
, and even that record feels twice as long. Not a second of its 30-minute runtime goes to waste; even the introductory instrumental “Turpentine” is so succinct that it doesn’t so much “open” the album as set up the following “Mother” to catch the listener off guard. Moments bleed in and out of one another in this fashion, and it’s initially an overwhelming effort to distinguish individual highlights.
Testament to this, I was disorientated and a little miffed at the relative lack of flooring moments on my first playthrough; on my second, I could tell that there was too much happening too quickly to absorb at once; by the fifth or so, I realised Astral Pariah
likely contains an equal number of ideas to Bad Luck
or Holy Vacants
, but that the band’s writing discipline has been sharpened and streamlined to a far more formidable standard, as though they’re finally secure about laying down their trademark thrills without milking each and every one to the limits of its potential. Just compare “Sister” with Darkness, Oh Hell
’s “Trazodone”, two equally fantastic songs equipped with the throatiest, filthiest blood-pumping bridges in the band’s blues canon: “Trazodone”’s bridge is practically an entity unto itself, a self-encoring triumph that could be amputated from the rest of the track and lose relatively little, whereas “Sister”’s is bitter and lean, Jones’ hell-raising growls teased and tempered with callbacks to the ghoulish central refrain, too steeped in service to the rest of the track to advertise themselves as an isolated thrill. “Sister” is far from a satiating moment of overkill; it’s sly and titillating, an apt, if particularly brutal, reflection of Astral Pariah
as a whole. This album is by far the most mature, focused release Trophy Scars have ever put their name to, extravagant as ever but without the faintest whiff of excess. Satan swallow me whole if that’s not a gamechanger.
To animate this, Astral Pariah
’s methodology goes far beyond a superficial sense of things-happening-faster. The band’s aggressive fat-trimming is accompanied by a newfound fluidity in their arrangements and refinement in their performances. Rather than a convenient vehicle for broader pyrotechnics, their engagement with blues rock now feels like the work of seasoned practitioners, assured enough to swat away any pooh-poohing over pastiche and novelty. Holy Vacants
’ flamboyant performances, particularly on the part of guitarist John Ferrara, were appropriate to that album’s wider shape, but Astral Pariah
seems to have caught up with the fact that truly great musicianship has no need to draw unnecessary attention to itself. The stunning finale “Father (Pt II)” is a masterclass to this end, seamlessly balanced as a group venture as each member understates their performance, trusting the strength of the track’s gorgeous refrain and its vertiginous dynamic ascent to coax out the album’s final breath (closer “Cosmic Suicide” plays a somewhat underwhelming epilogue role and is the only point that might have been pared back even further).
Perhaps most remarkably, this refinement also extends to Jerry Jones. As many have remarked at various points, his role in the band has always been a little oddball: he’s a writer first, frontman second; a narrator coexisting with music rather than a vocalist singing, uhm, songs. Not anymore; Jones’ performance is strictly complementary, at points even secondary, to the dust clouds his bandmates convect with such precision. He still gets cued in for the odd Waitsian eruption, as we saw on “Sister”, and lays down a rousing hook in the places that count, kickstarting the album on “Mother”’s teeth-bearing chorus, but he now finds himself within a songwriting matrix that can fully accommodate his lurid vision. Both he and his narrative are still central to the record, but it’s the kind of centrality that lurks and occasionally bursts up from beneath the surface rather than relentless dive-bombing visitors from above. He does well by this change; as, say, he draws back at the end of “Astral Pariah”’s effortless thaw of a chorus to let Ferrara’s Clapton-esque leads claim the hook, he finally sounds like a man with nothing to prove.
This once-unthinkable nuance and restraint is likely the impetus for Astral Pariah
’s production style, one of the most far-reaching of its adjustments. A far cry from Holy Vacants
’ crisp spotlighting of individual instruments, John Ferrara’s mix blends the arrangements together into a mercurial swirl, further understating facets that the writing never emphasised to begin with. Individual layers still land memorable accents where necessary (the fleeting harmonies of “Father (Pt I)”’s backing vocals are a notable treat), but the real joy is in how momentarily prominent layers give way to one another; such a translucent mix does reasonable justice to this. Still, there are points that may have been better served; “Brother”’s rollicking guitar solo is deprived of the space it needs to make a full tearaway, and that track’s boisterous rock style in particular may have benefitted from a less hazy approach. In any case, I can see the production sitting among the most stubborn points of contention for those adjusting to this leaner configuration of Trophy Scars, even if it pairs rather cogently with the band’s broader deweighting of standalone performances.
Where does that leave us? Somewhere suspiciously hitch-free, I think; the worst we have to contend with here is a dense mix, a lacklustre closer, and a necessity for repeat playthroughs. Is that it? What happened to those problems
? Who are these shrewd, competent men and what on earth have they done with the indulgence and pretention of my precious maverick ex-hardcore band? Why the fly*ng fuck
is it now viable to describe Trophy Scars with such words as “sophisticated”, “refined” and “tasteful”? Where once they demanded us to put open hearts above closed minds and forget the rulebook every other band seemed to play by, here they merely ask for a little patience and focus. Make no mistake, Astral Pariah
is a fantastic album: it’s slick, richly crafted and endlessly infectious, but
I feel there needs to be some dialogue over how wise the band were to do away with their excessive side entirely. This may well be the most rewarding album experience they’ve ever produced, but it’s willfully short of the full-bodied juggernauts that converted so many listeners in the first place. It’s too soon to cast firm judgements on this album’s lasting appeal, but my hunch is that the ears-to-the-ground listening style it’s best approached with will require much more base-touching than Holy Vacants
’ craters of bombast to retain its impact. Did this necessarily need to be the case, or was there room for a little extra oomph?
It’s a mixed verdict; “Sister”, for instance, would gain nothing if it played by the same rules as “Tradazone”, but I feel that “Father (Pt II)” in particular earns itself a victory lap as it draws the album as a whole to a cathartic resolution. The band’s restraint in bringing it to a close as soon as it peaks is so pronounced that it practically stands its own indulgence, as though they were so fixated on cleaving fat that they took off a collateral chunk of whatever was meant to hit the grill. This is hardly cause for lament; Trophy Scars have knocked out of their all-time finest achievements and I’m slowly learning to adore it, as should you. Hats off. However, turning those sorcerous critical powers, no longer so misplaced in this band’s pulp universe, to the future, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if their best release still lies ahead of them.