Graded on a Curve: Glimmermen, I’m Dead

The Irish trio Glimmermen has evolved from a tradition where math rock rubs shoulders with the influence of Mission of Burma and even a little bit of those Pedro, CA giants the Minutemen. The band’s first full-length I’m Dead provides ample evidence of these shaping tendencies, but the record’s best moments come when they divert into unanticipated territory.

Glimmermen sprang from the dissolution of the Irish outfits Boxes, Jackbeast, and Holy Ghost Fathers. Of the three, Boxes seems to have achieved the highest profile, at least posthumously. Holy Ghost Fathers, the band where Glimmerman Phil Murray played drums from ‘01-’07, have a self-released LP named Cock of the Walk under their belt.

And Jackbeast, a group dating back to at least the mid-‘90s that included Glimmermen’s stand-up bassist J. Bassetti, issued a self-titled 10-inch along with filling up one side of a split 45 with a gang that called themselves Spithead. But unfortunately, only a tiny portion of the work of Holy Ghost Fathers and Jackbeast is readily obtainable for perusal via the web.

Boxes, the prior unit of Glimmermen vocalist/guitarist Gavin Cowley, did manage three albums however, with 2006’s Bad Blood retaining the services of producer Steve Albini. Checking out that disc reveals a solid if not life-altering excursion into a math rock state of mind, with a little Chi-town and Washington, DC post-hardcore flavoring blended in.

Based upon what’s available to these ears, both Holy Ghost Fathers and Jackbeast derived from similar vistas of instrumentally adept indie rock formalism, though the scant evidence shows the former to have been built upon soil less fortified with structural complexity than the other two bands. What all three did seem to share was an eschewal of popish tendencies, at least overtly, and a comfort with amped-up volume.

By contrast, “Satellite People,” Glimmermen’s debut EP from last year, dishes out less loudness while retaining a focus upon compositional dexterity, and the four songs comprising that release are often quite reminiscent of the math rock intricacy associated with such names as Breadwinner, Don Caballero, Hoover, and Faraquet, all groups that can be accurately encapsulated as the spawn of Louisville, KY’s Slint. And worthy of note is that Niall Byrne, guitarist of noted Irish math rockers The Redneck Manifesto, played alongside J Bassetti in Jackbeast.

But “Satellite People” stands out for its detours from the by now well-established math rock thruways. Where the earlier examples of this genre reliably wielded intensity and aggression absorbed from the post-hardcore scene that preceded (and fostered) it, the initial effort by Glimmermen unwound with far less severity, mainly through a comfort with melodic sensibilities that allowed listeners a quicker, easier entry into the music (at least potentially.)  Or to put a finer point on it, undiluted math rock is essentially a post punk strain of Ye Olde Prog that’s been awarded with a less disreputable moniker.

At times the band’s initial effort is remindful of the sadly slept-upon work of the now defunct Washington, DC group Medications, a post-Faraquet trio that recorded for the Dischord label. But this connection is only a fleeting one, and as “Satellite People” unfolded a much more prominent influence emerged, specifically that of classic Boston-area heavyweights Mission of Burma.

This relationship is most evident in Glimmermen’s vocal approach. Not so much in Gavin Cowley’s warmly conversational lead singing (his delivery on the closing cut brings to mind the more relaxed moments of the Minutemen’s late and great D. Boon), but rather through the group’s background harmonies, an additive that clearly recalls Burma’s studio work for the Ace of Hearts label.

Like Boxes’ Bad Blood, Glimmermen’s “Satellite People” isn’t a mindblower, but it does stand up as a likeable opening statement from a band interested in extending the possibilities of a genre that’s sorta fallen by the wayside over the last few years. And while their new full-length I’m Dead also lacks any truly knockout punches, it does continue to explore similar motifs to agreeable effect while throwing in a few sly curveballs along the way.

The biggest of these twists comes right off the bat with the opening title track, which sidesteps the expected structural progressions offered by their debut for an environment that’s undeniably ska-like. Well to be perfectly honest about it, this development wasn’t actually all that unexpected. You see, I happened to read about this tactical switcheroo in the press bio offered up by Glimmermen’s label Transduction.

And to be blunt, I was fully prepared for the worst, mainly because the opportunity to hear non-Jamaicans tackling the ska form is about as attractive to this writer’s lobes as a lime-green polyester-knit leisure suit is to my peepers. This is to say, not very. So the unexpected angle comes through how Glimmermen manage to successfully navigate this dubious change in direction.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so prepared to assume the worst, for the UK region does have a somewhat better track record in borrowing the skank than do inhabitants of the US nation. And from a lyrical standpoint, “I’m Dead” does quickly cozy up to the downtrodden expressionism that made the Two-Tone explosion a briefly worthwhile turn of events, though Glimmermen don’t attempt any kind of rote replication of that era.

For starters, Cowley vocals aren’t shooting for a soulfulness that would likely result in an aura of the counterfeit, this tendency being one of the bigger problems with non-native ska (or reggae, for that matter.) Instead he retains his informal tone, the emoting closer to post punk weariness than Rude Boy zest, though he does slide in some wordless smoothie accenting that manages to avoid being off-putting.

Likewise, the music keeps contact with their prior material, particularly via the guitar, which as the song progresses not only offers progressions of prickly cyclical precision but also unravels into a succinct and brittle solo spot. Meanwhile, the rhythm section is shuffling up a storm without getting silly about it, and (naturally) horns are present and huffing.

A whole record of this sort of scenario would almost certainly run out of steam sooner rather than later, but thankfully that’s not what these guys are up to. For the next cut “Last Song” bounds into a terse bit of punk descended angular bop that unfurls the impact of the Minutemen (a too seldom discussed influence on math rock-shaped sounds, me thinks) with a shrewder hand than most. From there, “Ex=Out” features tough and skeletal post punk structure that’s wedded to those previously mentioned Burma-esque vocal gusts. Along the way the trio’s skill as a dexterous single unit becomes increasingly tangible.

As already stated, Cowley’s method is often conversational, but on “Angels and Devils” he actually flirts around with some full-blown spoken-word business, though it’s alternated with an earthy quality of outright singing. And the cut begins with one of those spiky math rock string patterns that’ll be immediately familiar to fans of the style (or for that matter, anybody that’s digested the music of Battles or Maps and Atlases), but this element isn’t overdone, being only one aspect of the song’s intricate weave.

Horns are again present, widening “Angels and Devils” instrumental palate. But most impressive is the merger of gutsy, almost roots-derived emotionalism (Cowley) with post-rock rigidity (all six hands.) It’s arguably I’m Dead’s most striking moment, additionally so because as it unwinds and shifts, Glimmermen avoid bringing the motions of any specific prior entity to the forefront of the mind.

This situation largely extends to the concise and engagingly melodic “There Was a Boy,” though Cowley’s vocal orientation continues to strike me as what a more pop-inclined D. Boon might’ve sounded like. I’m not complaining. And horns persist in spicing things up, though here the focus shifts from sax to sturdily rendered trumpet (along with reeds and valves, as the LP advances Glimmermen also coax some extra mileage out of a loosely blown harmonica.) Then the record’s biggest shift since its opener arrives, with “This Town” being a hunk of choppy guitar pop kicked out with true prole spirit.

Substantially pretty but imbued with the verve of a band with one collective foot still planted firmly in the garage (and therefore extremely well suited for inclusion on a mix-tape made to accompany the palpitations of an uncertain but earnest heart), “This Town” delivers the quibble over I’m Dead’s highpoint. After this, “Believe Me” returns to more familiar terrain, coming off like ‘80s Burma attempting a more trad rock approach, though those circular string clusters do assert themselves once again.

Penultimate cut “Peace at Last” is the first track on the album to span beyond the five minute mark, and as an examination of their instrumental surefootedness it does the trick, but overall it’s most noteworthy for a late-song surge featuring some generous throat action that just happens to recall one Peter Prescott. While not up to the record’s strongest stuff, it did inspire me to wonder over the fate of my tattered and long-missing (and indeed much-missed) Volcano Suns t-shirt. Frankly, very little music (outside the Volcano Suns and Burma, natch) has ever done this, so that’s something.

And that something is retained on closer “Home,” the LP’s other five minute-plus number. After some thought, it basically connects like Burma nursing a major fixation with early Brit post punk (think Wire or Gag of Four), and yet it sounds very little like the similarly minded post hardcore bands from the ‘80s American Midwest. So, points for that. However, it was mastered for LP by noted Chicagoan and Shellac bassist (and come to think of it, ex-Volcano Sun) Bob Weston.

It was also produced by former Jawbox main man J. Robbins. This was a smart maneuver on Glimmermen’s part, since in the past Robbins has been quite adept at handling the crossroads of post-HC-derived heaviness and thoughtful, non-submerged vocals (exhibit number one would be his own work.)

I’m Dead may not hold any haymakers, but it does contain a very tough jab with “Angels and Devils” and a highly swanky love-tap via “This Town” (the title track is best described as a well-executed bait-and-switch.) While the cumulative impact can be assessed as rather mild (unless you’ve not heard their inspirations, in which case it might just inspire you to flip your wig), Glimmermen deftly avoid any blatant missteps. It’s not an incendiary experience, but I’m Dead rates as a good record to have around.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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