Graded on a Curve:
Xetas,
The Cypher

Xetas are an Austin band who have just released their third LP. Their sound is informed by ’80s indie rock but with enough muscle and urgency that one could call them punk without ruffling (m)any feathers. Along with the ensemble cohesion characteristic of hardworking trios, their latest is shrewdly resistant to being pinned down, and after numerous spins is steadily growing. When it’ll stop, who knows? A verifiable fact is that Xetas feature David Petro on guitar, Kana Harrs on bass, and Jay Dilick on drums. Everybody sings. The Cypher is out now on green or black vinyl, compact disc and digital through the 12XU label.

A familiar occurrence for obsessive music listeners is when the discernible influences on a record spread out so wide that it instills ambiguity over its makers’ personality, either individually or collectively. When the complaints arise about a lack of originality, it is a likely indicator that the person opining is a jaded fuck. Well-adjusted human beings know that there is nothing new under the sun, especially as pertains to rock music, but it is far preferable for a band to zero in on a few key inspirations, work up a set of songs, and then execute them with flair, or at least energetically.

Still, there are no unbendable rules in the musical stratosphere. The Cypher is a strong case in point. The opening track from the album, “The Doctor,” begins with a heavily distorted keening guitar pattern that set off a brain buzzer labelled Big Black’s “Kerosene.” However, in short order Xetas redirect into territory reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s distinctive tunings, and then throw down a bruising rant attack that brings us back to the heavier underground Midwestern bands of the ’80s and early ’90s a la the Touch and Go label.

“The Bystander” wields guitar abrasion that promulgated thoughts of Hüsker Dü, though the unison vocals, often shouted, highlight a punk streak that reaches back to all ages shows (and to Xetas’ debut 45 from 2014). There’s also a more contemplative instrumental section that’s followed by the inevitable but nicely non-hackneyed (through brevity) ramp-up back to full intensity.

It’s in “The Hierophant” that the band really begins to conjure the wild heft of the punk-descended ’80s u-ground rock era more generally; it’s a sound that would’ve been at home on labels like the aforementioned Touch and Go or Homestead or SST or Ajax. Or it might’ve even been self-released. Back then, the records on these imprints was familiar yet straining (in the best possible sense) for something new. Today, as delivered by Xetas, it still packs a punch, and that’s no small achievement.

However, “The Martyr,” even as it chugs and roars along with precision, did initially connect as a lesser track. But hey, the raw-throated explosiveness of the finale really makes a difference. It leads into the beautiful curveball that is “The Witness,” an instrumental redolent of Mission of Burma, at first mildly so, although the presence of audible tape manipulation does magnify the comparison.

But The Cypher isn’t entirely about the subterranean ’80s, as the title track is a punk blast bringing ’90s North Carolinians Pipe to mind. This extends the record’s overall punkish vibe, but “The Objector” brings an even more unexpected post-punky, almost new wavy, development as Harrs steps into the lead vocal spot. The moments where her singing morphs into a gruff, agitated wail productively complicates this scenario and brings the ’90s to mind once more.

“The Xero” offers the sort of sweaty, buff, shirtless anthemics that really conjures an image of a few hundred tattooed arms thrust into the air simultaneously. “The Teacher” retains some of this aura but with more than a passing nod to the harder side of the Brit post punk spectrum, which is a considerable distance from the influences detected in “The Doctor.”

But Xetas save the craziest twist for last, as “The Mariner” finds the (post)punk-edged fist-pump aspect of their sensibility molded into a song so singalong (and call-and-response) catchy it’s like the aural embodiment of a muscle T-shirt advertising the ’80s band The Alarm. This might read as unsavory, but Xetas makes it work in part because they avoid getting slick about it and coming off like a retread of Big Country.

Instead, the tune registers as perfectly palatable to those kids with the Crass patches on their jackets, and that’s alright. Even better is how Xetas cover so much territory across The Cypher without fumbling momentum or losing focus. It’s a record establishing that punk-tinged indie rock is alive and well in 2020. I for one couldn’t be happier.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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