Graded on a Curve: Kinski, Cosy Moments

After a long break, Kinski has returned with their seventh LP Cosy Moments, released by the Kill Rock Stars label. It’s a largely disappointing affair that finds them embracing the Grunge rock of the region they call home. Never a band known for originality, their earlier efforts could still be quite likeable, but this new version of Kinski is sadly hampered by an indulgence in guitar-rock traditionalism. I’ll say this for the group, however; at least their diminishment in returns hasn’t been a predictable one.

The Kinski of Cosy Moments is a very different band from the one that recorded ‘99’s Space Launch for Frenchie and ‘01’s Be Gentle with the Warm Turtle. That self-released debut was a pretty cool slab of largely instrumental rock, possessing a sound that could please the ears of post-rock fans along with those folks situated inside the “drone” scene (think Bardo Pond, Acid Mothers Temple, Jessamine, etc), but they made some real strides with that Pacifico Records-issued follow-up, flaunting an aptitude for heavy riff texture that remains pretty impressive.

Original drummer Dave Weeks left the Seattle-based band before the release of their third album, ‘03’s Airs Above Your Station (he was replaced by Barrett Wilke, solidifying their current lineup). That LP served as the group’s first full-length for Sub Pop after having a 7-inch (“Penthouse Suite”) and an EP (“Semaphore”) waxed up by their hometown label.

The increase in profile brought a divisiveness of opinion over the band. Their fan base certainly increased, but the fact that Kinski never had a problem with being caught under the influence of another act’s stylistic precedent brought on some strong accusations from hardliners, those gripers maintaining that Kinski was no better than a third-rate entity.

On that note, I can still distinctly remember my first listen to Be Gentle with the Warm Turtle. Track five came along and the words that escaped my mouth were something very close to “okay, this sounds far too freaking much like Sonic Youth.” Taking a gander at the sleeve imparted that the song was titled “Daydream Intonation.”

Well okay, then. Rather than rip-off, it’s what the French call homage. The very openness in their appropriation made Airs Above Your Station’s subsequent unashamed SY-crib “Rhode Island Freakout” considerably easier to swallow. At least it was such for this correspondent.

If surely lacking in originality, they were just as certainly poised to widen the shelves of those favorable to Mogwai and GYBE, at least as long as those listeners weren’t too finicky, and their status in the post-rock/drone department is perhaps comparable to what a band like Slaughter & the Dogs represent to ’77 Brit punk; many people (such as this writer) like the Dogs very much, and an equally high number consider them to be also-rans, but nobody with their head screwed on right awards them with the distinction of trailblazers.

Even with the rise in visibility provided by Sub Pop, Airs Above Your Station was still very much the music of a band on the margins holding a very specific appeal, and this situation was magnified by ‘04’s Don’t Climb on and Take the Holy Water. That record was a much more drone-centric live document recorded under the alternate-name Herzog and released through the auspices of the Strange Attractors Audio House label (back in ’05 the imprint also gave Kinski’s first two slabs a thoughtful reissue.)

The gradual switch to what’s happening on Cosy Moments is first detectable on ‘05’s Alpine Static, a second full-length for Sub Pop that found Kinski upping the tempos of their still instrumental template and edging into a territory that at times was almost art-metal in execution. But at other moments they were still very much under the spell of Sonic Youth.

For the most part this was a likeable progression, though one personal sticking point is a spot in Arctic Static’s “The Party Which You Know Will Be Heavy” that sounds a little too close to “Hocus Pocus” by Focus (sans the yodeling, of course) for comfort. And in an unlikely switcheroo, some of those earlier detractors even warmed a bit to the changes that were on display.

‘07’s Down Below It’s Chaos, their final record for Sub Pop, is where the seeds of Kinski’s current direction were really planted. Much of the record’s running time was devoted to the relative normalcy of chunky rocking, a move to the middle that was only intensified by a higher ratio of traditionally delivered vocals (that means three songs out of nine).

If outliers no longer, Kinski’s travels into a more conventional guitar-rock zone (with an unusually high ratio of flute) was rendered palatable by the reality that they were never a groundbreaking band in the first place. Down Below It’s Chaos remains a very user-friendly record; it could even be said that the LP presented the group at their most ambitious.

It’s been roughly five and a half years since that slab first hit shelves, and in the downtime Kinski has taken a definite turn for the worse. If much of Down Below It’s Chaos seemed to bear little resemblance to Airs Above Your Station (or earlier, or the record released as Herzog), the connective tissue became easy to spot through attentive listening.

And Cosy Moments’ opener “Long Term Exit Strategy” is impressive enough instrumentally, mainly through an assertive effects-laden solo, to relate that this is indeed still Kinski, but as the record unwinds its contents are plagued by a lack of distinctiveness.

The following track “Last Day on Earth” is an uptempo rocker that finds the band landing squarely in Grunge territory, a turn of events that I frankly never would have imagined. Upon reflection, maybe this shift shouldn’t come as totally unexpected given the extant Sabbath-isms of their previous two records (or for that matter their geographical location and former involvement with Sup Pop), but the real problem isn’t the unoriginality of frequently traversed ground, but rather that “Last Day on Earth” is sadly uninspired in its facelessness, particularly in comparison to the new record from Purling Hiss.

Where Water on Mars breathes freshness into a sound that can easily overstay its welcome, “Last Day on Earth” comes off like a very middling rewrite of Nirvana covering Devo. And one of the aspects of Kinski’s earlier work that made those assorted style grabs pretty easy to swallow was their general lack of having anything to say in lyrical terms. The substantial rise in vocals throughout Cosy Moments doesn’t do them any favors.

“Skim MILF” is a slightly more inspired take on the same Grungy state of affairs, much better than its groan inducing title would indicate. But it’s undercut a bit by being less than two minutes in length, another issue that I never thought Kinski would shoulder.

The chunky rocker that is “Riff Dad” (another unfortunate title, but consistent from a band that wields an instrumental named “Boy, Was I Mad!”) sticks around long enough to get the blood pumping, but its best attribute lies in its lack of lingual articulation. Instead, Wilke, bassist Lucy Atkinson, and guitarists Chris Martin and Matthew Reid Schwartz simply lock into an energetic, fast-paced pound. And it’s interesting to observe how this veteran group seems to be aging backwards; if anything “Riff Dad” is youthfully generic, which brings some significance to the song’s titling.

However, “Throw It Up” is overlong and somewhat tepid in its attempts to instill some uniqueness into the newfound rock quartet standard. Martin’s vocals here are remindful of Lee Renaldo; this is one of Cosy Moments’ two instances of overt Sonic Youth influence, the other coming directly thereafter via the instrumental “A Little Ticker Tape Never Hurt Anybody.”

The opening drum line seems directly nabbed from “Schizophrenia,” but the stronger association comes through the guitar tones, and it’s one of the record’s best moments, mainly because it focuses on spacious dynamics (an area where Kinski have always excelled) rather than on the lyrical and structural shortcomings of trad-rock. Also likeable is the infusion of what sounds like multi-tracked keyboard and flute from versatile instrumentalist Schwartz.

But “Conflict Free Diamonds” falls back into uppity riffing that’s assessed as workmanlike at best. “Counterpointer” is similar, but it strips the vocals and essentially becomes a platform for the members to strut some of their musical mojo, not an unusual circumstance for a record sporting a cover snap of an airborne muscle car.

“We Think She’s a Nurse” is a hunk of floaty Kraut-tinged psyche, the song bringing Schwartz’ flute into the foreground and coming closest to what the band represented roughly a decade ago. Without this track, a serious case could be made for Kinski scrapping their moniker and releasing Cosy Moments under a new name (maybe Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo.)

That would only solve some of the problem, though. Kinski was once saddled with being unoriginal. But if derivative, at least they were inventive copyists, striving for a road less frequently traveled. And if that middle period found them creeping away from Mogwai and closer to Comets on Fire, the adjustment actually made the band more interesting.

Their newfound affinity for substandard rocking out, exemplified by the underachieving closing track “Let Me Take You Through My Thought Process,” finds them manifesting the drearily pedestrian. Those with an unscratchable itch for the Grunge experience might find Cosy Moments to their liking, though they should scope out the new Purling Hiss or even Mudhoney’s fairly strong new one Vanishing Point first. Fans of Kinski’s earlier records should definitely proceed with caution.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C

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  • mrLinden

    Weird. I really liked this abum a lot. I also liked thier last two albums, especially Alpine Static. None of it sounds like “grunge”.

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