“The gypsy was inclined to stay in the town. He really had been through death, but he had returned because he could not bear the solitude.”
– Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Sing, Bird of Prey’s debut LP Crystal Embryo – out Tuesday, 9/13 – is elegantly strange and effusive in both content and style; like the supercomputer in Hitchhiker’s Guide, it provides enigmatic answers to unasked questions. This leaves us – the listeners – like the mice in that story, scrambling after some kind of last-minute explanation to assure ourselves of a meaning that isn’t, as it were, inherent in the cosmos, or language, or in the spirit. It’s an ambitious rock opus written by and for a bunch of punks; ten confident, cinematic tracks for young stoners to blaze in their parents’ garage to.
The songs on Crystal Embryo are arcane; they lessen the divide between dimensions, attenuate the barrier between death and life, and most importantly – they shred. The record is a form of magical realism, treating the mundane and the metaphysical with equitable reverence. Paranoid fears of the modern era of video surveillance intermingle with the decidedly un-subjective, inhuman movements of distant celestial bodies. It is psychedelic, in the original sense of the word, meaning the record successfully champions the idea of expanding consciousness, of growing toward something greater than the aggregate sum of your experiences spread over time. By the time you’ve gotten to the title track, you should be asking yourself – among other things – what exactly is a crystal embryo anyway, and what will it become after it gestates? After it’s born?
Sing, Bird’s aesthetic on their debut is indebted in a number of ways to the ‘60s-‘70s “Wall of Sound”-era rock records. Each track is arranged so as to yield the maximum efficiency out of each guitar solo, each transition between semi-whispered vocals to shouted, each thud of the tom-tom and bass pedal, each symbol crash. The mix is multivalent and detailed, giving songs a kind of wide-angled vibrancy that the listener can reach out and touch, and fall through in to the kind of sweet memory of lost loves that has sadness pressing on its borders even as it makes you smile.
The first four songs are a tight-knit quadrilogy, alternating between uptempto on the first and third tracks and low-key on the second and fourth. “Microsatellite” – the opening track – is loud and vivid, guitar-driven precedent-setting rock n roll. In some ways it is the thesis of Crystal Embryo, the one later songs will either corroborate or provide the anti- to. Likewise, “Downstream” is one of the most kinetic tunes Sing, Bird has to offer on their LP, whereas the second and fourth tracks on the record – “Wild Type” and “Painted Bones”, respectively – are vocal driven relatives of the ballad.
“Next of Kin” sways and swells around an acoustic guitar and a haunting yarn – “You will never see me pull the strings” it begins. By the end, the refrain becomes “No one will ever know the truth”, repeating until all that’s left is a shuddering horn. “Diamond Marrow” is the LP’s most raucous song, its loudest, and possibly (by a close margin) its most hypnotizing.
If the opening track (“Microsatellite”) is the album’s thesis, its title track (“Crystal Embryo”) is the most direct response to themselves. It is Sing, Bird of Prey’s “shout at the heavens”-moment. Their display of resolve, of determination in the face of determinism. An open counterargument to the fatalism that pervades the anterior eight tracks. It is also the most magically real of the ten songs. When they sing “You’re never going to die – it’s all in your head”, you don’t believe those words, but you believe in a world somewhere where they’re true. You put together things you were half-thinking before but couldn’t exactly get the hang of, like what Gabriel Garcia Marquez was doing with Melquiades in One Hundred Years, how everything learned is forgotten, and everything forgotten remembered eventually.
“Brittle Bones” – Crystal Embryo’s last song and epilogue – is the record at its most triumphant and optimistic. It also features one of the most invigorating vocal performances. It’s always interesting to see whether a band will end their record on an up-note or a down. As subcutaneously caustic as the band is throughout much this collection of songs, ending on a song that even feels positive is a message in itself. “I know the truth – I am young” is the dénouement in the closing seconds of “Brittle Bones”. It’s the glimmer of hope in the final scene of a sad movie, the new beginning in the end of a story about loss.
Sing, Bird of Prey have crafted a unique debut LP, one that delivers something exciting on every track. “Wild Type” has its swirling guitars, “Grey Crescent” and “Downstream” stand out for their energetic vocal deliveries, and the cacophony of voices in the album’s “Interlude” become more apparent with every listen. In sum, they’ve crafted what is in my mind a clear Album of the Year candidate in what is an already stacked-as-heck year. It is with few parallels in terms of being one of the strongest releases to come out of the Lehigh Valley area in 2016. It is irrepressibly catchy on a song-by-song basis, and eminently re-listenable as a cohesive record. The production is nigh-perfect; no note falls out of place. Thematically, it picks fights with nature and technology likewise, and with humanity’s relationship with both.
Crystal Embryo is being released Tuesday, September 13th via Killer Tofu records, on tape and for streaming. Check it out, get these songs stuck in your head, and keep your eye out for a vinyl release somewhere down the line.
STANDOUT TRACKS: “Downstream”, “Next of Kin”, “Crystal Embryo”