by Niccolo Dante Porcello (@niccoloporcello)
Universal Care, Kal Marks' third LP on Exploding In Sound Records, comes nearly two years to the day from their previous effort Life Is Alright, Everybody Dies. On Life Is Alright…, Carl Shane, the frontman of the Boston trio, found a new edge in his songwriting. The songs were bigger, more incisive, but also more human than on prior Kal Marks records, and it led to a phenomenally interesting and challenging record that showcased a technical and emotional audacity. Universal Care finds Shane pushing Kal Marks in unexplored directions, and the result is extraordinary.
Like their prior records, Universal Care is a curious blend of immaculate fury and disorienting sobriety, shifting on dime and never seemingly at peace. It has become something of their hallmark — the very heady “Grand Mal,” and “The Afterlife” land in Kal Marks' unique sweet spot between sheer discordance and riff-y punk, uncertain and unforgiving, and very catchy. Here though, there is a new element in the mix. In the intervening years between records, Shane, along with drummer Alex Audette and bassist Michael Geacone, used their songwriting prowess to explore textual differences that add valuable elements to the distinct Kal Marks sound.
On “A Place Amongst All the Angry Hordes,” one of Universal Care’s numerous standouts, a (Modest Mouse-esque) jangly step-pattern dominates the first quarter of the song with unusual clarity for Kal Marks. Ensuing orchestrations jumble the progression but it lurks beneath the surface thanks to Audette and remerges, this time jagged and doused in distortion, near the end, where it is paired with a mellotron to astonishing results. It is among the most beautiful songs Kal Marks have ever made — and a jaw dropping moment for a band that has been often noted for their emotional and sonic rawness. Likewise, album closer “Today I Walked Down to the Tree, Read a Book, and When I Was Done I Went Back Inside” is a true ballad, done up in Kal Marks affect and truly dissimilar to anything the trio has done before. It is genuinely beautiful.
“Today I Walked Down to the Tree…” features Shane’s most direct lyrical work on a record replete with his best vocal work to date. The pliancy of his nasally tenor has been a focal point throughout Kal Marks' discography, and on Universal Care it is no different. Shane stretches his vocal chords into shredded contortions on “Fuck That Guy,” countered four songs later by the downright folksy, near-Jason Molina soul of “Ode.” On “Loosed,” another standout, Shane wavers between these two extremes bolstered by the iron backbone of Audette and Geacone’s groove.
Universal Care is a record that is unrelenting in its desire to push Kal Marks forward, a wonderful trait for a band that has roughly a decade of history weighing on it. Where Life Is Alright…, felt myopic, Universal Care seems to relentlessly expand as the record goes on. In furthering the sonic scope of the band, Shane and Kal Marks have opened up a host of future possibilities. Universal Care feels like a paean to some sort of distorted optimism, however scarce. It’s refreshing.