Ad hoc rock: On Dope Body’s Kunk and Holy Ghost Party’s Bayou Music

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DOPE BODY‘s ZACHARY UTZ IS one of the odder lead guitarist in rock right now. Take any snippet of his work on Kunk, the band’s piercing new Drag City album, and it recalls typical guitar-god acrobatics: the distortion growls in “Dad,” the fuzzy notes bent into squeals the pepper the entire thing, the metallic chugs rippling around “Obey,” the feedbacking purrs reverberating through “Void.” They’re familiar sounds to anybody who has listened to the rock of the past 40-plus years. But like some fellow contemporary nonmetal guitarists—see also: Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster—Utz is too irreverent to use guitar pyrotechnics simply as a display of ostensible virtuosity. On Kunk he sounds far more interested in taking a lead guitarist’s full Malmsteem bag of tricks and instead using them to serve the song—or what the song could be.

In many ways the entire album follows suit. Everything about Kunk sounds and feels like the Dope Body norm: shades of Touch & Go Records heaviness, abrasive dynamic shifts, pummeling subject matter, all delivered with shirtless-dude intensity. But something in every one of the ten tracks feels a little off somewhere, whether it be Utz’ ear-grabbing guitar workouts, bassist John Jones putting a sleepy acid-house throb in the background of “Obey,” the stuttering tone-holes that echo through the 64-second exhale of “Ash Toke,” or the R&Bish pulse drummer David Jacober puts into the smooth operating “Down.” Kunk isn’t just another noise-rock outing, it’s something looser, more ambitious and impressive.

It’s the sound of a band shedding its skin a bit, and it makes these ears exited to hear where it’s going. Dope Body isn’t just stretching new songwriting muscles but being quite cheeky about it. The album was teased with “Old Grey,” the most conventionally Dope Body track here:

It’s everything expected from the band: Utz’ crunching chords, Jacober and Jones locking into a neck-snapping groove, Andrew Laumann’s vocals buried in the buzzing mix, cough-screaming what sounds like reports from the world’s end: “I’ve been sleeping on the street and woke up in a trash can” and “how we going to fit all these knives up in heaven baby.” But then there’s that whirly-gig cartoony sound marking time at the song’s beginning. And there’s that part about two minutes in when it sounds like everything drops out but Jacober and Utz, leaving Laumann to seek some kind of solace by asking “tell me it’s real/ tell me how to deal.” The band sounds like its’ figuring out what it wants from its sound on the fly here.

The band gets even looser on the album’s closing two tracks, “Pincher” and Void.” The former is a roughly two-and-a-half minute instrumental of darting ideas, flirtations with operatic math rock, and spectacular moments that it immediately abandons. The latter, at just over six minutes, is Konk‘s longest song, and easily the most haunting. Over a slab of Nuebautenish industrial sprawl the band patiently builds to a hectic rush, like a treadmill that keeps increasing the pace until you’re at a dead sprint trying not to get thrown off. But eventually you do get tossed, lungs depleted, legs shaking.

The album standout is “Goon Line,” genuinely gorgeous car crash. Utz finds that horrifyingly grating guitar tone that Paul Leary used in the Butthole Surfers “Graveyard” and dares to make it funky. Jacober hammers away like he’s laying railroad spikes. Jones’ bass line is an adventure into to the prog dimension. And Laumann hijacks the shrill long-“a” rhyme scheme that Bowie used to timestamp verses in “Fame”. Any one of those elements by themselves feels perfunctory; together they add up to a disorienting morass of manic joy.

THERE’S AN IMPROVISATIONAL FEEL to Kunk, and it sounds like Utz and Jacober used the same approach in the new album by Holy Ghost Party, their more indie-pop outfit. On HGP’s 2011 self-titled album the duo sounded like a perfectly acceptable dream-pop combo, complete with winsome sing-song melodies, moments of shoegazing grandeur, and Flaming Lips-like quirkiness. With the new Bayou Music (Ehse), the duo sounds like they spent a month listening to Skip Spence’s Oar, maybe a little Third Ear Band and Comus, the entire Jackie-O Motherfucker discography, and then decided to make a party record.

Bayou is equal parts pastoral psych-folk, stoner-rock head trip, and meditative outer-body experience, often within the same song. Closer “Fade” begins in the warm embrace of Jacober’s juggling beat and Utz’s cartwheeling guitar lines, over which one of them chants a Nag Champa mood. Three minutes in the song shifts gears, becoming a driving blast of sunny good cheer, and as the song approaches it eight-and-a-half minute end it’s achieved a Magic Hour majesty. Elsewhere, a song like “Earth Jam Memory” starts in what seems like standard “Cortez the Killer” mode and unfurls into a restless, shifting starburst, the way Tim Buckley’s backing band just tries to follow wherever he’s going in that righteous live version of “Gypsy Woman.” It’s a fun album, from the kaleidoscope-eyes tapestry of “Pinche”—nice song title there, gueros—to the third-eye massaging “Concerning Peace Bayou Music,” the kind of outta-sight excursion that takes it’s own sweet time meandering through its six minutes, putting shaking percussions behind a buzzing guitar that segues into the kind of sandalwood sway that momentarily makes a middle-aged dude consider doing some Stevie Nicks shawl dancing. And nobody needs to see that.

Dope Body plays an album release show Aug. 28 with Wume and Box Truck that you can find out about yourself if you know where to look. Holy Ghost Party, joined by Lexie Mountain, plays release show Aug. 30 at the Crown with Peter Nolan and Zachary Cale, and Dave Heumann.

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