Review: The Gulf War Boys – Crytsal Knife

Gulf War BoysHave you ever encountered a piece of art that you just really don’t know what to think of? Not one you’re “too stupid to understand”, just something that doesn’t make any feasible sense no matter which way you look at it. Whether it’s due to an overcomplicated plot or just sheer incompetence, these complete enigmas are usually just accidents, kind of like the Chernobyl disaster of art.

When a piece of art is arcane by design, however, it can often be met with scorn. Acclaimed filmmakers including Michel Gondry and Jay and Mark Duplass are considered by some to be trying way too hard to stand out from the crowd because of their deliberately bizarre approaches to storytelling. The entirety of indie video gaming has a reputation (among some rather thick people) for being one big pretentiousness-fest because of games like FEZ and Braid serving as its poster children of sorts, both games with very unconventional approaches to everything (gameplay, story, graphics, etc.).

Of course, unconventionalism exists in the form of music as well, most commonly in the form of what’s simply known as “experimental music”. While the standalone genre has had some absolute majesties like Animal Collective and Pinkish Black, it most commonly finds itself blended with other genres. Whether it’s experimental pop, experimental rock, experimental hip-hop, or any other subgenre, they all have one thing in common: hipsters love them. There’s a reason you see Swans and tUnE-yArDs getting apotheosized way more on Pitchfork than on Rolling Stone or Spin, that’s all I’m saying.

The Portland-based Gulf War Boys are an experimental band in the same way that water is wet, in that I don’t think they could get any more experimental. On top of their bizarre sound and the fact that I’m spelling their name wrong (the correct spelling is actually sʎoqɹɐʍɟlnƃ#), just about every single song title on their free debut EP Crytsal Knife – or, excuse me, – consists of bizarre symbols you can’t even type with a conventional keyboard.

But beyond the group’s wild experimentation and everything about them being shrouded in mystery (I can’t find a Facebook, Twitter, or anything for these guys, nowhere have I been able to learn how many members the Gulf War Boys contain, and I only have their Bandcamp’s word for it that they’re even from Portland), is there anything worthwhile from their music?

While the music of the Gulf War Boys takes on a plethora of different styles and genres throughout Crytsal Knife, its most common outfit is a glitch-y experimental drone sound, kind of like a hybrid of Oneohtrix Point Never and Machinedrum, with a bit of Burial’s vocal sampling and The Avalanches’ Plunderphonics thrown in for good measure. Crytsal Knife is not content with monotony, though, as it’s changing its beats, samples and genre style by the second, and rarely does it take the time to take any single nuance and build upon it. Those of you who prefer your music to be more consistent and establishing will probably want to give the album a slap in the face and some Ritalin, but this factor makes listening to the release all the more fascinating, because you never have any idea what the band is going to pull next.

However, the sʎoqɹɐʍɟlnƃ# don’t really do anything that really stands out during the EP’s 23-minute runtime. They don’t do the Ben Frost thing of starting out really slow and then slowly building onto it until eventually the song is loud and commanding. Songs just kind of end how they begin: slow, albeit still retaining the haphazardness throughout. Because of this, even if you aren’t more of a full-album listener like I am, Crytsal Knife is the kind of album I’d recommend you listen to from beginning to end, as it just feels like more of a complete experience that way.

For all of the different dynamics that adopts during its 8-track run – from the How to destroy angels_-esque post-industrial feel of “Big Winnings $pirit Mountain to the Environmental Sound Collapse-y psych-chiptune of “>>machinefreeks<< ((sempr fi))” – my favourite parts of the EP were when they went for an acid IDM approach, like on “ಠ‸ಠ Private Eye’s” and “The Ultimate Sin”, the opening and closer to the album, respectively.

While I would call Crytsal Knife a decent and interesting album for what it does, I do think it could’ve benefitted majorly from some more focus. While its rapid-fire variation does make the album worth listening through once, it doesn’t do anything that’ll make you want to come back to it because it doesn’t give itself enough time to expand on any of its musical ideas. If they had opted to focus on a single style (like, say, their acid IDM fusion), and then used their other musical ideas to build onto that, it could’ve been truly compelling. Instead, Crytsal Knife ultimately amounts to little more than a collection of disjointed half-baked musical styles that, save for a couple styles (glitch and drone, specifically), are dropped about as quickly as they arrive.

With that said, however, I do think is worth listening through at least once if you’re a fan of experimental music. Due to the release’s short length, the ever-changing genres do hold one’s attention for its entire duration, and it does have some lofty ambitions. Besides, the album is free anyways, so there’s no reason not to at least check it out. You can download the EP for free on the group’s Bandcamp page.

does happen to be the first release from the Gulf War Boys, so it’s definitely possible that the release just serves as a jumping off point for them, and they’re just throwing all of these different ideas at a proverbial wall to see what sticks with the most precision and the most impact. If that is the case, I hope they’ve found a style they’re happy with, so we can see more concision on their next release.

Until next time, don’t forget to be awesome.

About Jess Casebeer

NorthWest Music Scene's reviews editor and multi-genre music nerd, Jess greatly values original content that's informative, personable and entertaining. Soundgarden sits comfortably next to Squarepusher in their CD collection. They're kind of like an innerspring mattress: firm, yet comfortable in its own right. Write: