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Banned Books - "Banned Books" | Album Review

By Ivan Krasnov (@ivankrislov)

When I first came into contact with Philadelphia-based Banned Books on their 2012 release Flawless Demo, I could tell I was dealing with a band that had the potential for greatness stifled by a lack of direction. I immediately sensed their ability to both challenge listeners while still managing to draw them in, though felt the absence of a cohesive voice. In the time since, roles within the band have shifted, with a new member joining the fray as they honed their sound both on the road as well as on bills with the likes of Deerhoof, Guerilla Toss, Xiu Xiu, Palm, and more. The result is their first self-titled, full length release out now on tape via Ramp Local. Banned Books showcases how years of hard work can produce an impeccably tight, dynamic, and bold trio happy to show off their boundary-pushing yet melodic blend of noise rock.

I had the pleasure of booking Banned Books at my college in November 2015 to play with Palm, which ended up being my first true exposé into the band’s music. Witnessing them perform live was vital to my understanding of the sort of band they have now evolved into. Through this I discovered the real crux of Banned Books - that is, the telepathic interplay between guitarist Matthew Dermond, bassist April Heliotis, and drummer/vocalist Zane Kanevsky. That much sought after balance between total control and chaotic release was beautifully exhibited onstage in front of me that night - completely knocking me on my ass. I am happy to report that with the help of Carlos Hernandez and Julian Fader at Gravesend Recordings, along with the mixing of Sam Owens at Figure 8, much of that energy has been finely captured here. While the often raw-sounding nature of these mixes might leave some listeners wanting more, their commitment to capturing the essence of these stellar performances has produced a thoroughly engaging listen.

Take singles such as ‘Fuselage’ and ‘Armor’, which best exhibit the band’s talent at delivering flurries of crashing cymbals and guitars in between smoothly reentering twisted grooves that hit hard. Zane Kanevsky’s startlingly sublime voice rewards your listening with sugar-sweet melodies and cryptic lyrics throughout the tape, with lines like “A chance to feed the fire/In our bones,” in ‘Everything I’ll Ever Need’, or “Crown fragment/In a pool,” in ‘Crown Fragment’ leaving you wondering what might have triggered such impressionistic phrases. What keeps bringing me back, however, is Matt Dermond’s smart and crunchy guitar work, through which ornate riffs and interspersed chords fill the space in between Kanevsky and Heliotis’ precise rhythmic work. 

And while the aforementioned songs are perhaps your most logical starting points, I’m floored by ‘The Excursionist’, which finds the band departing into a near-funk territory thanks to Dermond’s bright chords, backed by Kanevsky’s syncopated drum pattern and Heliotis’ pronounced bass part which accentuates the twisted groove. For a band that has found their footing so well while clearly still having some fun with it, tracks like this one help alleviate any concerns of them getting stuck in a rut. Banned Books leaves me wanting more while furthering the belief that there is still plenty that can be done with the standard guitar-drums-bass format. The road ahead now looks more certain for Banned Books - I’m just here eagerly waiting for them to show me the wonders they will achieve on it.