American DIY music is squarely in the era of Exploding in Sound Records. The Boston-born, Brooklyn-based label has quickly evolved into the premier tastemaker among a certain crowd with a certain sound, claiming a massive range of artists spanning from Big Ups to Palehound. And let’s not forget the integral hand Exploding in Sound played in launching the careers of Speedy Ortiz, Porches. and LVL UP.
Just two weeks after releasing Washer’s stellar Here Comes Washer — and two weeks ahead of a slated Kal Marks drop — EIS is making ripples with a new Two Inch Astronaut record, Personal Life. Their debut, 2014’s Foulbrood, was grungy punk as viewed through an academic lens. While not exactly math rock, Foulbrood weaved intricate guitars through a thicket of noise. Its intricacy was fresh and welcome, but above all, it was loud. Despite its texture, its beating heart was still that of a rock album, accessible in its intelligence.
Personal Life, the Maryland group’s second L.P., follows squarely in that tradition. Two Inch Astronaut clearly still view themselves as everyman rockers, and it’s this outlook that underlies a record that’s even more angular than their first. Beneath Personal Life’s labyrinthine riffs lies a punk frustration evident in its intensity.
The peanut butter to this intensity’s jelly is the album’s overwhelming density. Each track is a thick jungle of looping, winding riffs and abrupt jumps between fast and slow, loud and soft. The album’s technicality borders on mathy at times, particularly on the spikes of “Sexual Prince of the Universe” and sharp corners of “A Happy Song.”
The knotty guitars and jerky tempo are particularly obvious on tracks without a howling, traditional rock chorus — yet this is where Two Inch Astronaut are at their best. The record’s title track, shared as an early single but somewhat stylistically different from the rest of the album, is more driving and jumpy. Nestled in between quiet verses and angsty bridges is a more straightforward, snarling chorus that begs you to shout along with it. Despite its display of musicianship, “Personal Life” is a standard punk track with far more control over the gearshift — it stops on a dime and starts right back up again and skids from boisterous to near-silent.
Other tracks stand above the album in this way, too. The swirling seas of jumbled verses part for a howl-along chorus on “Good Behavior” — wiry ’90s revival as filtered through the mind of Ben Gibbard — and “Topper Shutt,” a pile of stacked distortion that builds into an angry nasal whine.
Two Inch Astronaut’s disaffected aesthetic is plucked straight from their area’s alternative ’90s legacy, and this is intentional. Personal Life was produced by J. Robbins of D.C. rock royalty, having made his name with Jawbox, Government Issue, Burning Airlines and a lengthy production resume. This adopted sound provides the backbone for Two Inch Astronaut’s wildly textured songwriting.
At times, though, the texture comes at the expense of melody. At their most knotty, such as on “Andy’s Progress Report,” the impenetrable forest of intricate riffs ebb and flow in a way that’s impressive, if not too finely constructed for a rock song.
While each twist and turn is compelling in itself, the record’s sheer density makes particularly re-playable tracks a rarity. Rather, Personal Life works best as a gestalt. The individual tracks tend to blend into one another and get lost in the tornado of techy riffs. But it’s a fun 35 minutes — it passes like a blur, begging you to take in even part of its staggering heft.
Many Exploding in Sound bands have made careers out of exploring mazes of wobbly riffs; Palehound and Speedy Ortiz immediately come to mind. Two Inch Astronaut fit right in with the EIS roster — if a web of snarling distortion and antagonistic vocals makes you salivate, Personal Life should be squarely in your wheelhouse.