by Max Freedman (@anticlimaxwell)
These days, with the mainstream so readily co-opting LGBTQ+ culture, a Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus type could release an album titled Gay Disco without catching anyone off guard. Guerilla Toss, a much less commonly known entity, did exactly this in 2013; Gay Disco was a fantastic, viscerally riveting piece of noise pop that fused dance punk grooves with the sort of shrill guitar lines previously reserved for Wire. GT ULTRA, the band’s much more innocuously-named 2017 release, is actually a straight-up pop album, at least by Guerilla Toss standards. The band’s eight newest songs are their most melodic and accessible yet, all the while maintaining the bizarre charm that’s defined the band from its earliest moments.
A surefire way to move towards pop accessibility following years of underground experimentation is to sign with a reputable label. Guerilla Toss signed to James Murphy’s DFA Records in 2015, and its debut for the label, Flood Dosed, focused somewhat more on its dance punk threads—naturally, for a debut on the LCD Soundsystem guy’s label—while only minimally ditching the mania of Guerilla Toss’ tape label heyday. 2016’s Eraser Stargazer followed in suit, only mildly scaling back on the disorganized chaos of prime Guerilla Toss; GT ULTRA, by contrast, vastly forgoes Guerilla Toss’ signature guitar yanks and vocal yelps. The album’s glossy synth pops, robust drum machines, and sung-spoken vocals are nevertheless thoroughly engaging; even though some might miss vocalist Kassie Carlson’s hysteric near-screams and the band’s jolting six-string stabs, GT ULRA is a pretty stellar album.
“Can I Get the Real Stuff,” for instance, is spastic and bouncy, as one might expect from Guerilla Toss, but the squelching synth leads, clickety-clackety percussion, and Carlson’s heartfelt musings represent intriguing growths towards pop’s universal charm. Far from a wild, amazing shitshow (as an early Guerilla Toss song might lovingly be described), its unquestionably heightened production is instead the driving force, as is often the case on GT ULTRA. Lead single “The String Game,” for example, initially slaps a classic Guerilla Toss vocal filter onto some of Carlson’s most vivid storytelling on record, but it quickly pulls this veil off to reveal her most audible performances to date, surrounded in reasonable yet enticing synths rather than head-spinning blazes of dissonant guitar fury. “Betty Dreams of Green Men” likewise refuses to cover Carlson’s vocals with much of a blanket, the whole while bolstering it with a grooving but steady drumline and faintly sneering synths.
The Guerilla Toss that longtime fans might be a bit attached to relied strongly on the jangle and rage of swiftly up-struck guitars and drumlines so untraceable they could induce nausea; the Guerilla Toss of GT ULTRA delivers its disorientation with more polish. Even “Dog in the Mirror,” arguably GT ULTRA’s closest link back to Eraser Stargazer, is neat and orderly despite its cowbell-splashed squalor. “Crystal Run” is similarly chaotic, yet its craziness is virtually linear compared to, say, the six-minute, Deerhoof-worshipping temper tantrum of “Operate,” Gay Disco’s possible best track (the competition is intense). Even “Skull Pop” is pretty well-contained compared to previous Guerilla Toss highlights despite its frenetic drumline, but Carlson is straight-up crooning on the chorus and during the interlude; she sounds more like a master of melody than the cantankerous child who spellbindingly graced hits like Eraser Stargazer’s “Perfume” and Flood Dosed’s “Ritual in Light.”
All bands evolve given time, and these days, more and more artists, Guerilla Toss included, gradually—maybe even inevitably—move towards accessibility as they create and release more and more music. The blessing of GT ULTRA is that it doesn’t betray Guerilla Toss’ signature formula so much as it washes away its dirty edges, leaving a clean, presentable sheen exposed. Past its shining, Mr. CleanTM surface, though, lies the same batshit insane batch of Boston kids that continues to scream and smash its way to the front of the pack.