by Torrey Proto (@torreysbrewin)
New Haven, CT trio Bilge Rat’s self-titled debut opens on a delicate note, with frontman Mike Kusek casually opening the record with a cryptic observation: “Your teeth were knocked out in a fight/ and fell apart/ the pieces came together to make a sinking arc,” before erupting into a series of harmonic-laden riffs, all backed by Quinn Pirie’s urgent drumming. It’s fitting, perhaps, that Bilge Rat chose to open the record with “Bleached,” more a puzzle rather than a definitive statement of arrival; the rest of the record proves just as unpredictable both lyrically and musically, to stunning effect.
Bilge Rat is an anxious listen and proves to be a quick burst of sidewinding displays of technicality that borders on overstuffed, with its run-time clocking in at just under half an hour. This is not a slight, as the trio play together like a well-oiled machine with bassist Ryan Kalentkowski (who also writes songs as Jacket Thor) subtly locking in with Pirie’s dynamic and loose jazz-inspired drumming, nicely providing a strong backbone for Kusek’s ruminations and fretboard wandering. Mind-bending tracks like the ironically-titled “Pop Song” simultaneously show off the band’s tendency to veer off course while also showing impressive restraint for a band that is only getting started. Kusek’s lyrical penchant for bizarre musings on familiar landscapes and situations paint a truly vivid picture of the dusty spaces their music inhabits. In standout “ID vs. RC,” the quiet folk of Kusek’s solo recording rears its head, beginning with understated gentle guitar picking with sparse drumming while he poetically paints an all-too-familiar burnt out post-party scene that hits a little too close to home: “I smoked for the last time of the night in your apartment/ and filled my pockets with ashes/ I wake on a mattress lined with cigarettes and stir for the coffee and panic.” These thoughts are soon interrupted by a squall of dizzying guitars. This serves as a wakeup call, as he asks for help amidst the instrumental storm behind him with little in the way of immediate help, all before making a definitive checklist of things he can do to better himself: “I should drink more water/ smoke less/ pray more.” Autobiographical or otherwise, Kusek proves to be a relatable songwriter when the band dials back and gives his narrative its deserved place to shine.
Bilge Rat is a strong and dynamic document of a band overflowing with ideas. It’s a strong first step forward for the power trio, who possess the kinetic energy and willingness to put their bold ideas into practice. These lively compositions are brimming with life and could easily fall flat in the hands of a band less deft in their approach than Bilge Rat. They know when to step on the gas pedal and when to pull back, creating a nice push and pull effect as their music slyly shifts from one extreme to the other, with Kusek’s strong lyricism and mostly calm delivery serving as the glue that keeps everything from truly falling apart. While not a perfect album, Bilge Rat is impressive in its fun and breezy approach to its many ambitious and weighty compositions and serves as a launch point to any number of possibilities for an undeniably exciting future.