The first lesson that Xerxes‘ sophomore full-length teaches us is that, if you’re going to start something, you’d better see it through. That’s definitely the lesson this critic learned; when I first put my copy of Collision Blonde on my turntable, I thought I had a good idea of what to expect when the needle dropped. I had heard Our Home Is A Deathbed – Xerxes’ debut full-length – and figured this new album would be more of the same kind of “you either like it or loathe it” over-aggressive and thematically rudderless hardcore. As “I Was Wrong” made its incredibly methodical way in, it looked like I was going to be proven right. The whole track really isn’t much more than an extended fade-up which features the band assaulting one chord for just less than two minutes and vocalist Calvin Philley screaming the same unintelligable sentence (a scan of the liner notes relays that the total lyric sheet for the song is “I’m better off but I was wrong, it never ends” over and over again). Then everything changed after that first song ended and I discovered that I’d have to echo the song’s sentiment: I WAS WRONG.
Discovering how Collision Blonde works and when it becomes enjoyable is not an immediate epiphany, though. It’s very much a process which requires that a listener follow along with it. After “I Was Wrong” lets out, that process begins as guitarist Will Allard lets out a simple surprise by stepping on a chorus effect pedal and abandoning the hardcore-distortion-and-power-chords paradigm on “Criminal Animal” for something completely different – it’s a little college rock-y (but still with Philley barking on top), and will force listeners to shift gears if they want to keep going with the music. Many will be uncertain, but listeners will come along tentatively into “Toast” (which plays within a similar form to “Criminal Animal”) and keep following into “Knife,” where the game changes a little more. There, Philley spontaneously relaxes him caustic bark and backpedals into a sort of wounded and cathartic yelp. Listeners will be stunned; never before has Xerxes played some comparatively light but, rather than revolting, fans will be intrigued. The sound’s pretty good, in fact. Because they’re so stunned, listeners won’t even bat an eye when the whole band sonically lightens up for “Use As Directed” and gently strokes its way through the subdued, cathartic and spoken (not screamed) lyric sheet.
As they’re carefully flipping the album over, listeners will already be floored by the changes in Xerxes marked by Collision Blonde. This is a very different band from the one which released Our Home Is A Deathbed two years ago. Those who went through the first side won’t be put off though; they’ll want to see to what end all these changes lead.
Immediately on the flip side of the album, listeners will discover that they don’t have to wait long for more new ideas to pour out of Xerxes. Beginning with “Chestnut Street,” Allard pretty much just leaves his distortion pedal at home and begins examining an alt-rock sound closer to that of The Cure circa Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me at its heaviest, and like Wish (with a bit of more active punk seasoning for good measure) at its lightest. The resulting melange is about as unusual in listening as it sounds in print (in no small part because Philley keeps up his catharic yell throughout), but at no point does it ever reach the point of being poor or misguided. In fact, as it goes, listeners will start enjoying trying to break what they’re hearing down; the title track slows the going down and finds Philley lightening up to deliver confessions like “I’m still struggling with what comes next/ Yeah, I’m all talk when I say I’ll start to drink less” which ring brilliantly after the assaults on the band’s first album and the first side of this LP while “Exit 123” plays at frustration in twilight hours and “Nosedive” stirs up a tempest of misery (“I’ve felt this for too long”) before evaporating and leaving listeners to clean up. Some will find this kind of psychodrama daunting and some others (who loved the inchoate howling and white hot guitars of Our Home Is A Deathbed) will find it dogged, but those who crave a little personality which will give a confession a face will be intrigued.
Collision Blonde is absolutely, positively a great surprise that it’s likely no one saw coming from Xerxes. Sure, no one saw it coming but, after “Nosedive” walks away, those listeners won by Collision Blonde will want to know where Xerxes’ new turn is leading. How will this band answer what they’ve done on their sophomore album? Because the differences between Collision Blonde and Our Home Is A Deathbed are so great and completely realized, there’s no way to guess what may come next from the band. That difference is arresting, and will have fans running back for Xerxes’ NEXT album – they’ll want to know how everything turns out.
Xerxes – Collision Blonde – “Collision Blonde” – [mp3]
The vinyl release of Collision Blonde is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.