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Sunwatchers - "II" | Album Review

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by Jeremy Zerbe (@jezawatson)

Two years after their rollicking debut, Sunwatchers have returned with a second album overflowing with swirling psychedelia. On II, the Brooklyn quartet is tighter than ever, with a clearer use of controlled chaos than on their self-titled debut. That isn’t to say they’ve left the noisy free jazz behind, but that it comes in well-proportioned spurts between extended melodic explorations.

From the paisley-patterned shuffle of album-opener “Nose Beers” rises a howling saxophone refrain over layers of squealing guitars, capped off with white-hot trilling bursts of noise. From there, “The Hot Eye” ping-pongs through your headphones (or well-placed stereo speakers) to delightfully disorienting effect before sublimating into a galloping groove that propels the song through its lengthy latter half.

Next comes the album’s standout track, “These Are Weapons You Can Bring to School,” a nearly ten-minute, slow-burn meditation that builds off a single, droning note. Guitar and sax enter, twisting their way around the note with rolling toms rumbling to the surface. Then at the two-minute mark, the instruments begin to sync up, percussive phrases snapping into time then fading, like clouds passing over the sun. Finally, the song bursts forth into madness, screaming notes and splashes of cymbals running together into a single texture. When the beautifully melodic riff returns to close the song, it is positively triumphant.

The band then moves into “The Silent Boogie” with a start. Sinister saxophone squawks introduce another swirling bout of noise before dropping into a swinging good-time rock number.  Wah-laden guitars provide a rich tonal backdrop to moments of honking harmonica, all draped over a strutting bass line.

As the album comes to a close, the final two songs show the band at their extremes. “The Works” begins as a low-key jam, drums softly driving the song forward as harmonies are layered in. Then, it takes a turn into an almost siren-like break of whirling triplets, leaping back and forth between the two modes until it fades into the atmospheric hum of “Flowers of the Water (for Lou).” Here, finally, we’re treated to the album’s only vocal performance, a lilting melody awash with reverb, hidden behind the gently thrumming instruments. Slowly but surely, the song builds into a towering mass of noise that constantly shifts and changes its color, from a warm purl to a hissing shriek. The result is transcendent.

Sunwatchers has become, over these two records, a true favorite of mine—a band that I introduce to friends excitedly, gesturing wildly with my hands in an attempt to express the palpable tension and release in each song. They embody all that is good in a band: a creative force unencumbered by genre or expectation, one that surprises with every new phrase. There is something so organic and handmade to their music (which also comes through wonderfully in their artwork, philosophy and politics) that makes them absolutely arresting and so easy to lose yourself in.