A look back on Cymbals Eat Guitars’ sprawling, oft-misunderstood ‘Lenses Alien,’ which turns 10
Gordon Phillips is a musician and writer from Richmond, Virginia who sings and plays guitar in the band Downhaul. Here, he looks back on Cymbals Eat Guitars' oft-misunderstood sophomore album 'Lenses Alien' in honor of its 10th anniversary.
One of the first-ever shows that Cymbals Eat Guitars ever played was Pitchfork Festival, in July of 2009. Riding the wave of their “Best New Music”-tagged debut, Why There Are Mountains, Joseph D'Agostino’s Pennsylvania by way of New York by way of New Jersey-based indie rock project joined the venerated, fuzz pedal-fueled Buzz Band Class of 2009 (Japandroids, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Antlers, Bear in Heaven) almost literally overnight.
CEG spent the next year and a half touring small clubs across the country, opening for The Flaming Lips in Europe (on D’Agostino’s 21st birthday, coincidentally) and fielding an oft-quoted endorsement from The Wrens’ Charles Bissell--to name a few. “I didn’t know shit about shit,” D’Agostino says now, reflecting on the band’s first full U.S. tour with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart in September of 2009. “How to sing, how to play, how to use my gear. I was sort of a studio/home recording savant, but being a good live band was something completely different and new to me.”
At some point during the band’s six trips back and forth to Europe in the window after the release of Why There Are Mountains, CEG signed to Memphis Industries (Tokyo Police Club, The Go! Team, Black Moth Super Rainbow) for future UK releases. “Those guys are great,” says D’Agostino. “We stayed in a squalid flat above their offices whenever we were in London. You could only take baths, no showers. Mattresses on the floor.” State-side, however, “we were still running on the steam of the self release thing, but US labels were sniffing around. It wasn’t exactly a feeding frenzy because the hype was already waning by 2010--probably because of the ass live show.” CEG eventually signed with Seattle’s Barsuk Records (Death Cab for Cutie, Rilo Kiley, Ra Ra Riot) in what D’Agostino now refers to as a “war of attrition.” “They were the only label that stuck around and didn’t lose interest in signing us,” he says. “Luckily, they’re wonderful, kind people and a great label--so I lucked out there.”
As often can be the case when a project shifts from hobby to profession, half the band turned over during the time period between Why There Are Mountains and Lenses Alien. Keyboardist Brian Hamilton and bassist Matthew Whipple entered the fold, both of whom would remain with the group until its discreet dissolution in 2017. Where D’Agostino “basically wrote the entire first record himself,” according to Whipple, “this time around it was the four of us making a record together. Joe still wrote most of the song skeletons, save for two where I wrote the music and he wrote the lyrics.” Looking back now, D’Agostino refers to “Keep Me Waiting,” one of the songs that Whipple co-wrote, as a “proto-LOSE moment,” referencing the band’s third (and firmly most popular) record. “Keep Me Waiting” also landed the band’s first music video treatment, a hazy depiction of youthful hijinks gone wrong at the hands of a Volvo station wagon.
CEG tapped John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., The Hold Steady), a friend of their then-publicist, to produce the band’s second record. “I met John Agnello on the last show of that Bear in Heaven tour during April of 2010,” says D’Agostino. “I was vomiting in a trash bin backstage at Music Hall of Williamsburg. By the end of the headlining U.S. tour (with Bear In Heaven) I had an insane viral throat infection and 105 fever. I was sick all the time from stress and from smoking tons of cigarettes and getting drunk every night like an idiot. I played a lot of shows like that, sick as a dog. So yeah, that’s how I met John. He agreed to do a record with us for some reason.”
Agnello began attending CEG practices in the fall of 2010, then taking place in Whipple’s parents’ basement, in preparation for tracking the record that would become Lenses Alien. Agnello sat behind Hamilton with a portable Zoom recorder, occasionally suggesting structural changes, including a re-write of the ending to “Definite Darkness,” which is apparent when comparing live recordings from that same time period to the album version of the same song. Agnello was also at least partially responsible for the shortening of “Tunguska,” which the band originally released in June of 2009 with a meandering, acoustic intro, resulting in the more succinct and concise, aptly-named “Another Tunguska.”
The Lenses Alien sessions took place over the course of 15 days at the now-defunct Headgear Studio (Animal Collective, TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn--10 days tracking and overdubbing, five days mixing. “I mostly sat in the control room smoking pot and eating veggie duck drunken noodles,” says D’Agostino. CEG tracked the majority of Lenses Alien instrumentals live, but the session did include an entire day of auxiliary percussion overdubs. “We had to indulge our drummer at the time, Matt Miller--he wanted a full day for percussion,” says D’Agostino. “Honestly, so did I.” Additions like shaker through the verses of “Definite Darkness” or “Wavelengths” add a dimension of rhythmic inertia to the mid-tempo arrangements. Across the record, Miller’s drum parts are dynamic and technical without being overly flashy, serving the complicated songs in lockstep with D’Agostino’s structural acrobatics--the kind of thoughtful accompaniment that listeners might expect from a founding member and long-time personal friend. Augmented by a heavy tour schedule, the chemistry and interplay between D’Agostino and Miller is on full display during the stop/start moments and stark mood shifts of “Plainclothes,” a song the band began playing live as early as the summer of 2009. Lenses Alien ended up being Miller’s last record with CEG; Anne Dole took over the throne by the time LOSE rolled around in 2014.
One unmistakable difference between Why There Are Mountains and Lenses Alien is the contrast in D’Agostino’s vocal performances, as well as the sonic presentation of his voice within the mix of the record. “I took lessons from Melissa Cross,” D’Agostino says. “The first lesson was maybe May or June of 2010. Completely changed my life for the better.” Cross, known for her instructional video series, “The Zen of Screaming,” and work with vocalists ranging from bands like Slayer or Slipknot to Underoath, Chiodos or A Day to Remember, earned every penny. Where D’Agostino’s vocal delivery previously trended toward the “raw yelling” end of the spectrum, often targeting expression or volume over pitch or melody, he emerged on Lenses Alien with tight reins.
Across the length of Lenses Alien, D’Agostino’s vocal takes are laser-focused, confident and nimble, often enjoying a clean double-tracked treatment, courtesy of Agnello. “I guess I just arrived at the idea that my voice sounded more bearable to me if it was doubled,” says D’Agostino.” “I was still really uncomfortable with my voice.” The decision to double-track a significant portion of the vocal takes on the record, adding a certain notion of stability and intentionality, acts as a comforting counterbalance to the snaking, unpredictable squalor of the instrumental arrangements. Like a pair of halogen headlights burning a beacon through a dense fog of delay pedal oscillation.
Where he would have previously resorted to unrefined strain, Lenses Alien sees D’Agostino trying out a distinctive falsetto delivery when reaching for notes on the higher end of his range, which would emerge as a dependable flourish of his singing style through the end of CEG and into his current project, Empty Country. “John was encouraging me to try to sing pretty,” D’Agostino says. “That [falsetto] was something I developed as a result of John encouraging me to sing more and scream less.” For long-time fans, however, parts like the frenzied outros to “Plainclothes” and “Gary Condit” still harken back to D’Agostino’s boisterous days as “Joseph Ferocious.”
From an arrangement standpoint, a conventional “chorus” can serve as signposts. The songwriter demarcates whatever melody or lyrics they choose to highlight using an emphasized musical arrangement and/or simple repetition throughout the song, signaling to the listener that “this is it, this is the part to focus on.” Picture an aircraft marshall with the illuminated batons, gesturing up and down the tarmac. But on Lenses Alien, D’Agostino systematically refused to give listeners that security blanket or “easy out.” He then took it a step further, often changing a song’s tempo or overall feel without any kind of warning or later revisitation of those same motifs. “Secret Family,” for example, opens with a bright piano arpeggio over one of the more obviously gratifying grooves on the entire record and, to its credit, repeats the same idea (this time under a vocal line) a minute later in the song, before the bottom falls out completely. At almost exactly the midway point, the band drops tempo into a brooding slouch. D’Agostino delivers a few lines of lyrics (seemingly about a stoned visit to a bodega) and a wordless falsetto vocal refrain, culminating in a buildup...that ultimately goes nowhere. Imagine trying to taxi down the runway without an aircraft marshall--then, all of a sudden, the jet bridge is on the opposite side of the plane. And then imagine an entire record of that.
Evan Rytlewski, writing for Pitchfork, described Lenses Alien as “demand[ing] more from listeners than most were willing to give.”
The hooks in songs like “Shore Points” and “Keep Me Waiting” handily rival even the catchiest vocal melodies on Why There Are Mountains (read: “Indiana”). But how effective can an earworm really be when it only happens once in a song? D’Agostino packed so many different melodies into every track, without repeating any, that a casual or first-time listener might be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of different ideas occurring in one song. It’s like swinging for a home run every at-bat with a runner on second—just put the ball in play! Joyce Manor can get away with it, but their records are 20 minutes long.
At the time, however, CEG believed themselves to be doing the opposite--at least compared to Why There Are Mountains. “We wanted to do less of section, section, section….no repeats,” D’Agostino told Stereogum after recording, but prior to the album’s release. “I just wanted to have more continuity, more pop song structures…a little bit more. I’m [sic] don’t know if it comes off like that.” “There’s still not a lot of conventional choruses,” redirects Whipple. “Yeah, none of the lyrics repeat or anything,” D’Agostino is forced to concede.
According to D’Agostino, Agnello’s most significant structural contribution to Lenses Alien is in the nine-minute opener to the record. Somehow tagged as the lead single, “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)” contains a roughly three-minute ambient noise section smack in the middle of the song. “[Agnello] said ‘there’s no point in doing it for 40 seconds,’” D’Agostino remembers. “‘You have to do it long enough to make people uncomfortable.’ I thank him most for that maybe.” Mission accomplished, presumably--although the band did turn around and unload an *only* 40-second noise portion in the middle of the album’s overflowing closer, “Gary Condit.” When allocating album bookends, conventional wisdom would say to put the three-minute noise section in the closer and keep the opener/lead single as “palatable” as possible, but conventional wisdom typically doesn’t get invited to play Pitchfork Festival as their fifth or sixth show ever.
Nine-minute openers aside, potentially the most affecting sequencing decision on the record nearly did not escape the cutting room floor. “The Current,” sitting at track seven, “almost got cut” before Hamilton (typically the keyboardist) added guitar parts and “saved it.” “Brian actually made ‘The Current’ wayyy [sic] better,” D’Agostino says. Bordering on an interlude, “The Current” is a pulsing instrumental number, save for three short stanzas in the final 40 seconds. Miller provides a thumping floor tom backdrop, over which Whipple plays an anxious arpeggio high on the fretboard. Hamilton’s shrouds of ambient feedback and discordant guitar plinks induce a sense of weightlessness, occasionally accented with trance-interrupting crash cymbals on the chord changes. Miller’s drumming subsides as D’Agostino delivers the song’s final lines with a touch of vocal overdrive: “I feel so at peace / There’s infinite earth versions / Legion me’s free from malignancies.” As D’Agostino breathes out the final syllables of “malignancies,” the record seamlessly transitions into the dry acoustic guitar stabs of “Wavelengths,” offsetting the reverb curtains of the prior track. Sequencing a song with a stark cold start like “Wavelengths” can be difficult within a record, but this one lands perfectly.
Whipple’s contributions to “The Current” are far from the exception to his playstyle across Lenses Alien. “Whipple’s basslines are sick,” says D’Agostino. “It’s like one long bass solo. Nobody else could have written parts for that music.” Like Miller, Whipple more than rose to the challenge of matching D’Agostino’s linear arrangements. Ranging from bubbling fills and passing tones between chords during the first verse of “Wavelengths” to the borderline disco-ready walking bassline outro to “Plainclothes,” notes pour from the bass guitar in a way that could only adequately be captured in full-on sheet music.
Unfortunately, music writers spent the last couple decades diluting two of the words best describing D’Agostino’s guitar playing on Lenses Alien--“jagged” and “angular.” Forgoing the layering of fuzz and atmosphere that defined Why There Are Mountains, Agnello captured D’Agostino’s dexterous live takes in a simple stereo pair. D’Agostino’s intricate picking parts land with the impact of leads and his melodic leads touch down like hurricanes. “Shore Points,” the record’s brisk second track, blurs the line between the two with a light-footed dexterity that led the band’s then-manager to dub it CEG’s “Two Weeks.” “In what world would ‘Shore Points’ be that kind of hit?” D’Agostino asks now. And no, it did not land in a Volkswagen Commercial--or come anywhere close.
The “sophomore slump” is a trope for a reason. Especially when compared to a self-released, overnight sensation like Why There Are Mountains, the record that ended up being Lenses Alien had big proverbial shoes to fill. Band members essentially turning on the record during their very next press cycle, while far from unheard of, only heightened the perception that they made something “bad”--or at least something they were no longer proud of.
Reflecting on Lenses Alien in a SPIN interview during the press cycle for LOSE, D’Agostino admitted to “[t]rying to write more choruses” that time around or “focusing on songcraft and being more of a songs band instead of a sounds band or a vibe band.” “Our last record was a very prog rock affair,” he told The Aquarian. “[E]verything was super composed, there were no choruses, no lyrics repeating, virtually none of the parts repeated.” Five years down the road, Whipple would diplomatically refer to Lenses Alien as “kind of a wig-out moment for us.”
During that same press cycle, D’Agostino openly acknowledged his perception of the way audiences received Lenses Alien cuts at the shows CEG played in support of the record, as well as the way the band felt playing them. “The fact that the song structures are more streamlined than Lenses isn’t a concession that was made to win more fans or some bullshit,” D’Agostino told Under The Radar Magazine. “[W]e just got tired of playing mathy, ponderous songs every night.” “Do you know how many people were singing along to Lenses Alien songs?” he rhetorically asked another writer. “That’s a hard question to answer because in most cases there weren’t any people at those shows in 2011.” Band-side condemnations of Lenses Alien material eventually reached a fever pitch when the band had to walk back their quips about never playing the songs live again: “[t]hat was kind of a joke that got blown out of proportion. We never seriously stated that,” D’Agostino explained. “One or two Lenses songs have found their way into the set, mostly because way more people are into that record now than when we were actually touring on it. Like "cool man thanks for screaming that we play 'Definite Darkness’…coulda used more of you in 2012.” The band wasn’t alone in that observation.
Instead of doubling down on the grandiose, “overdub-heavy” arrangements that D’Agostino and company had to essentially troubleshoot ways to recreate live, CEG’s renovated lineup internalized the lessons that only a year on the road can teach. Put another way, the band rehearsed with live shows in mind, tracked live in the studio, streamlined their arrangements with an eye toward faithfully replicating those parts onstage...and then nobody came to the shows.
Why There Are Mountains took three years; Lenses Alien took 15 days. And one of those days was basically reserved for tambourine. Even with a relatively small temporal gap between records, fuzzed-out guitars were (yet again) uncouth by 2011. Neon Indian, M83 and Twin Sister had dragged synthesizers back to the forefront of The Blogosphere’s fickle attention span, which landed CEG on bills with bands like Say Anything, Foxing and Modern Baseball by the time LOSE tours materialized. While these “bands in the Alt Press/ Property of Zack world” very well might have been more intuitive of a sonic match than immediately meets the eye, the shows attracted a different kind of crowd than CEG had grown accustomed to--push pits, crowd surfing and all. “I could care less about ‘cool’ and what people consider to be cool at this point,” D’Agostino said at the time. “What does cool get you? People standing with their arms crossed, checking in on Facebook and twittering about how ‘okay’ your set is? Fuck that. Seriously.” While those tours raised some eyebrows at the time, there could easily be a solid contingency of Pavement, Built to Spill or Modest Mouse fans (a few of CEG’s most frequent “FFO” comparisons) on the floor at any given Say Anything or Brand New headliner.
“We’re trying to break out of the buzzband realm and hook some fans who will stick with us beyond a hype cycle,” he continued. With the benefit of hindsight and full knowledge of their unceremonious conclusion, it is hard not to tie the band’s general change in course, arguably bordering on overcorrection, to the muted reception that Lenses Alien received from CEG’s then-existing fanbase (or target demographics of potential new fans).
So what is this record about, then? And does that really matter when trying to navigate its place in indie rock canon, or even within the band’s own discography? D’Agostino would go on to decry his own Lenses Alien-era inclination toward “five dollar words,” promising to “stop trying to show everyone how smart I was and just write some lyrics with some emotional heft.” LOSE saw D’Agostino milking his true home state of New Jersey for all it was worth, sprinkling in personal anecdotes and folklore alike with an unabashedly heavy hand--which music writers loved. The passing of his close personal friend, Benjamin High, would also surface on LOSE. Bloggers and interviewers covered that, too. Lenses Alien lacked such handy footholds. Its characters are confused and unreliable; its locations jetset from Horizon City, Texas to Taichung, Taiwan. A song like “Definite Darkness” reaches its understated apex with lyrics like “So maybe I've been sleeping less at your place,” only to conclude “A skinless and sinewy leviathan all terrible contraction and release / Debasement ringed in banner plane exhaust and scattering V's of geese.” Similarly, “Another Tunguska” pairs “Remember you and I would get so high / We'd pass out with our shoes on” with oblique references to an asteroid that apparently hit Tunguska in 1927. It’s easy to dismiss Lenses Alien’s lyrical content as the scattered musings of a thesaurus-armed Wikipedia skimmer’s attempts to sound provocative--and maybe casual listeners did exactly that. Beneath the many syllables, however, the songwriter that would go on to write LOSE--which everybody seemingly agrees had great lyrics--found his stride.
“The end of ‘Gary Condit’ is definitely me starting to write about Ben,” D’Agostino says now. From the vantage point of later material, some of the landmarks and experiences locked away in Lenses Alien cyphers shine through. The New Jersey township of Belmar comes into focus on “Plainclothes.” The speaker expresses a strong aversion to returning to Spring Lake in “Shore Points” after a vaguely-described, yet clearly significant negative experience. “Another Tunguska” conjures lasting images of millennial childhood, complete with a slap bracelet and skateboard. D’Agostino’s early decision, deliberate or not, to obscure his own experiences as opposed to overtly mining them for content--just as he was thrust into the public eye of listeners and interviewers alike--might have saved him from early songwriting burnout. After all, the moniker “empty country” is, itself, a lyric from “Wavelengths.”
At present, Lenses Alien sits one point above both Why There Are Mountains and LOSE on Metacritic. The record received a thoughtful review from Pitchfork upon release, the same website that dislodged Why There Are Mountains from obscurity two years prior. Even now, D’Agostino qualifies his description of Lenses Alien as “the most epic bellyflop” with “critical reaction notwithstanding.” But if critics liked the record, why were the clubs empty--especially if those same critics single-handedly birthed the buzz that buoyed Why There Are Mountains? What is the “shelf-life” for a buzz band? Is it inherently that much easier for fans to root for a MySpace “Cinderella Story” than it is for, say, Death Cab For Cutie’s labelmate? What does a buzz band darling, now equal parts blessed and bogged down with industry infrastructure, have to do in order to continue moving forward? At bottom, is it fair to blame Lenses Alien for its past reception and present “legacy” (or lack thereof) when there might be any number of outside forces at work other than the quality of the songs on the record itself?
Because ten years later, the songs hold up. Agnello’s production does not “date” the record whatsoever, especially as Hamilton’s effect pedal-laden electric pianos wind and weave across its 43-minute runtime. Unbeholden to any trend, past or present, Lenses Alien’s unbridled ambition and masterful execution put it in a class of its own. D’Agostino’s lyrics, while not immediately gratifying enough to land in the Tumblr text edits that dominated 2011, showcase an emerging songwriter exploring his own relationship with lyricism and storytelling. Despite the harsh words leveled at the time, D’Agostino finds a silver lining now: “Lenses Alien was inspired by hubris, ego, entitlement, and a whole host of other shitty things,” he explained in a recent Reddit AMA. “But it's [my wife] Rachel's favorite album, so I must have done something right.”
Joseph D'Agostino’s new band Empty Country will play Knitting Factory Brooklyn on January 21 with The Wrens' Charles Bissell and Field Mouse (tickets).