by Torrey Proto (@torreysbrewin)
New Haven, Connecticut-based trio Bilge Rat’s second full length Pal finds the band continuing to scrape away at the bottom of the barrel to reveal murky and desolate places. Now a three piece with Michael Hammond stepping in on bass alongside singer and guitarist Michael Kusek and drummer Quinn Pirie, Bilge Rat sound dangerously locked in with a sharpened focus. Sonically, the band travel through dimly lit spaces that had been previously explored on past releases. However, Pal proves that Bilge Rat are far from running out of ideas. The album’s many moods swing abruptly from subdued intimate passages into more frantic and unhinged outbursts, making for a deliriously woozy trip through strange yet irresistible musical landscapes.
While hints of Slint or early Modest Mouse’s ever-expanding arrangements can be heard in Kusek’s guitar-work and the band’s open-ended approach to songwriting, they contort their mind-bending sonics into an altogether more distorted and sinister headspace that’s all their own. Early tracks such as opener “Cupio” showcase the band’s fine-tuned approach with a heady but contained instrumental framework from which a seemingly endless supply of strangely catchy hooks emerge. First single “Finger Nails” conjures up more of the vivid imagery that can often be found in Kusek’s lyrics, opening with the lines “when I get home from long drives with sweaty palms / my home feels fake / and my finger nails tend to break and bend,” leaving a grotesquely physical mark when they shine through the mix just long enough to be heard. The singer’s words perfectly match the dark sounds they accompany.
The musical connection between the Bilge Rat’s three members is apparent throughout Pal. The band ride creaky, warbling grooves that stretch out and wander to far off places, yet they never lose the backbone of the rhythms that make their songs so infectious and compelling. The lo-fi production keeps things appropriately gritty while giving the appropriate space for each member to shine. The mix gives Kusek’s every plucked note and string bend the impact it deserves in Pal’s quieter moments. For instance, the more deliberate and slowly unfolding “Slacker” allows the band to stretch themselves out and let the dust settle, with no hurry to arrive at its conclusion. “I’ll be better this year / smoke less and try to reduce aging / breathe and cry louder and smile out of comfort and not neurosis at every passing stranger,” Kusek declares in his distinctive delivery around two minutes into the song, providing an admirable rallying cry that anyone could get behind. With all of Bilge Rat’s noise and clamor, intimate moments like these make for a nice foil to their darker tangents.
Bilge Rat continue to perfect their established formula by weaving their complex narrative structures into palatable, crafty songs that delight in surprising ways upon repeat listens. Each of the three members balance each other out and avoid senseless jamming in favor of purposeful and concise experiments that rarely stretch too thin given the often dizzying arrangements. Pal firmly establishes Bilge Rat as one of the more expressive and distinguishable grunge-tinted acts around.