Graded on a Curve:
E,
Complications

The band called E hails from Boston, with a lineup composed of Jason Sidney Sanford on guitar and homemade devices, Thalia Zedek on guitar, and Gavin McCarthy on drums. Complications is their third full-length, a welcome if concise set delivering rock trio dynamics as smart as they are heavy. All the members of E sing and contribute words, with some of the lyrics wielding what can perhaps be best described as coincidental timeliness. This only adds punch to an already powerful record that’s out April 24 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Silver Rocket/Lokal Rekorc.

It’s accurate to call E an underground rock supergroup, though the principals’ prior achievements are a bit more varied than is normally the case in this often-anticlimactic scenario. To begin, Gavin McCarthy played drums in Boston’s indie-punk-jazz-math rock outfit Karate for the entirety of their 1993-2005 run, the group only ending due to the persistent hearing problems of guitarist Geoff Farina.

Roughly a decade before Karate’s formation, Thalia Zedek emerged on the Beantown scene in Dangerous Birds, a band not long for this world, and followed that by joining the terrific if also short-lived Uzi. Next, she was in the underrated Live Skull. After that, she moved into the ‘90s as part of Come with guitarist Chris Brokaw. Finally, she started the Thalia Zedek Band.

Zedek’s amassed credits surely contrast with McCarthy’s lengthy tenure in Karate, but Jason Sanford’s been the one constant in the seven different lineups of Neptune, a group that sprang to life not through a want ad tacked to a record store corkboard, but in connection to Sanford’s sculpture project, from whence he began building numerous instruments including scrap metal guitars, thumb pianos, oscillators, a feedback organ, and a viola-like instrument utilizing bass guitar strings and a guitar pickup.

For Complications, Sanford has unveiled another guitar alongside such reliable devices as the Monosequencer; when stomped on it plays a series of bass notes, though the promo text for the record emphasizes how the necessity of stomping on the instrument every time these bass notes are desired retains the human element in the music through sheer physicality.

This observation registers as particularly significant to how Sanford’s experimental background has been integrated so productively into E’s sensibility, which is undeniably rock (it is worth noting that Neptune shared stages with numerous rock acts including hometown cohorts Mission of Burma). However, it would seem that a bigger factor in their success as a unit, i.e. creative strength through chemistry, comes down to the simple (even predictable) routine of practice in aid of releasing records and playing live; their self-titled debut came out in 2016, with Negative Work following two years later.

The title of E’s third record seems a bit reflective of the point where many bands begin to break down, but Complications extends the worthiness of the prior work, benefiting from equality in construction while still allowing individuality to shine. “Caught” sets the record in motion with sharp layers of controlled, indeed melodic, distortion, as McCarthy provides both a sturdy rhythmic base and propulsion.

This instrumental attack can bring both Sonic Youth and Burma to mind, though it’s important to stress that Zedek is a contemporary of those bands rather than a follower. Furthermore, E expand and contract their sound throughout the record, with the stinging post-punky amp noise of “Acid Mantle” an immediate example.

But if the track’s approach throws back to precedent, the collective heft and barbed velocity is reminiscent, at least to these ears, of a few of the more post-punk influenced acts on the Dischord label in the late ’90s-early ’00s, but ultimately with its own character shining through. It also takes two minutes for the vocals to enter the song’s weave via words that are assembled like a short prose poem in the accompanying lyric sheet (driving home that if a rock trio, E are far from conventional).

The imagery in “Acid Mantle” includes injections, laboratories and an endnote mention of a virus, a prelude to the pathogens, isolation and quarantine sang about in the decidedly punky “Contagion Model” and the references to sickness in the album’s latter track “Miasma.” This lyrical content isn’t at all predictive of the rise of Covid-19 that’s transpiring current to this review; indeed, it’s described in the PR as being concerned with the “medicalization of modern experience,” but it’s hard to deny that contemporary circumstances lend the song (and the LP) an extra emotional kick.

However, it’s just as accurate to proclaim that most of Complications’ weight is accrued through instrumental cohesiveness and songwriting prowess. Take “Sunrise,” with its combo of ringing guitar melody and electrified crunch blending with the expressive heights of Zedek’s singing and the crisp muscularity of McCarthy’s drums.

Both “Miasma” and “Dead Drop” dish hearty ingenuity that combines the best elements of post-punk and power trio rock, bringing Wire and Minutemen to mind in the process (though they don’t especially sound like either), while Sanford’s homemade additives function in a manner not too far removed from the role Martin Swope (and post-reunion, Bob Weston) played in Burma.

In a sly development, “Gelding” begins with a slightly math-rocky progression and spoken vocals that are mildly suggestive of Slint, while the singing in the verses of “Like a Leaf” reminds me a bit of Lee Ranaldo. All these comparisons might seem like they’re potentially undercutting E’s achievement, but no; first off, these aren’t copped moves or mimicry, they’re interesting similarities (which are very difficult to avoid in rock music. Deliberately trying to sidestep them can backfire mightily). Most of them are ultimately as coincidental as the record’s lyrical component.

“Apiaries Near Me” wraps up Complications with a strong collective statement. That everyone is equally contributing to the track rather than leading or supporting, bounding forward or lagging behind, reinforces the vitality of E’s endeavor. Difficulties in band dynamics have undone many a supergroup, a fact that makes the achievements on display here all the more worthwhile.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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