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The Chromatics - Plaster Hounds

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Artist: The Chromatics

Album: Plaster Hounds

Label: GSL

Review date: Apr. 6, 2004

While the Chromatics’ personnel philosophy is something of a mystery, they are, apparently, a duo, comprised of singer and multi-instrumentalist Adam Miller – the sole remaining original member of the band that released 2002’s Chrome Rats vs. Basement Rutz – and fellow singer and multi-instrumentalist Nat Sahlstrom. As one would expect, the dramatic changes to the Chromatics’ line-up resulted in some equally dramatic changes to the way the band sounds. Plaster Hounds is every bit as noisy and chaotic as Chrome Rats vs. Basement Rutz, but the band takes an entirely different path to this end. Now, the focus is on their busy rhythm section (Ron Avila of the Get Hustle sits in on drums here), churning out figures designed for power rather than speed; it boils down to the difference between a god awful racket (Chrome Rats) and a god awful pounding (Plaster Hounds). Add to this Miller’s static-covered howling and unpredictable lead guitar eruptions, and the Chromatics’ primary influences – punk and dub, you guessed it – are easy to hear.

Of course, finding a band with those influences has never been especially difficult, not for the last 25 years or so. Where the Chromatics differ from a great many of them is their sense of studied debauchery. Plaster Hounds is loud and overbearing and at times the production sounds deliberately terrible. Indeed, most of the album seems to be about atmosphere at the expense of musicianship, songwriting, production, or experimentation, and with the exception of the closing cover version of the Silver Apples’ “Program,” the songs sound pretty much the same. Avila and Sahlstrom pound out a set of inconsistent rhythms, which the vocals (fuzzed-up by producer Jeremy Romagna) then follow, usually ranging from a low mumble to a piercing scream. The songs don’t feature much in the way of melody or songwriting, but criticizing Plaster Hounds for being dissonant is a little like criticizing William Vollmann for being verbose – the criticism applies, sure, but if you’re concerned about that kind of thing you’re just looking in the wrong place.

The lyrics, like the music, seem to have been written more for effect than expression. “Ice hatchets in the gut / ice hatchets in the gut / who will skin this illusion / who will sculpt plaster hounds” or “the two English sisters / holiday on Greek island in June / take naps on the white shores / the silk sands beaches / coughed up an orphan / who sang me a shanty in tune”: There’s a way to scrutinize lines like such that their meaning becomes transparent, I’m sure, but they thrive first on their spooky ambiguity.

Whether the Chromatics’ personnel changes are a cause or an effect of the change in their music, the reinvention works pretty well. The rhythm section is always interesting and the Chromatics have revived some useful wisdom by realizing that, on a punk album, the bass and drums can do more than keep time. The formula can be a bit too much after a while – this is not an album that can be breezed through from front to back – but, like sitting in the dark, one gets used to it after a while. A little levity would have been greatly appreciated (their attempt to do just this by including “Program” at the end of the album succeeded only halfway – it’s brighter than their other material, but still drains the original of some of its goofy pleasure), but even if the Chromatics are a lot less fun to listen to than their influences, they’re just as daring.

By Tom Zimpleman

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