January 6, 2014
by Bryne Yancey

What’s cooler: Giving a shit and looking like you do, or giving a shit and looking like you don’t? Nihilism seems mostly passé these days; looking around, there’s enough injustice in the world to draw the ire of even the most passive of punks. Misanthropy is out.

But “not caring” isn’t the same as being “carefree.” Being carefree means something far breezier. It means fun. Most rock music used to be carefree, and while it might be a positive thing that that’s largely no longer the case, listening to California X evokes a feeling that maybe, once in a while, it’s totally cool—and healthy—to turn off our brains, stare at a wall and just listen.

The Amherst, Massachusetts band’s 2013 self-titled debut was exhilarating in its central purpose: to pack as many dense scuzz riffs into its nine songs as humanly possible. Loud rock ‘n roll cut down to its purest modern form, accessible in places, but purposefully opaque throughout. Listening to it loud enough is what I imagine drowning might feel like; it overtakes all of my senses in this weird, indescribable way that few records can. As a music fan, that’s the best kind of hole to fall into.

It’s also a record that’s perhaps impossible to replicate. Thankfully, California X didn’t really try to do that with Nights in the Dark. Though that sort of infectious freewheeling continues in some ways, it’s by and large a bleaker, more diverse younger brother to its predecessor. The leads littered throughout the opening title track feel more somber than triumphant, and the rhythm guitars have an unattainable distance to them. It feels more spacious. “Red Planet” has a more driving personality to it, but while one might assume a song about Mars would be goofy, this isn’t, “Red dust! Red clay!” chants aside. “Hadley, MA” plods along at, comparatively speaking, a snail’s pace, with Lemmy Gurtowsky’s leads and his voice in concert with one another. The solo he cuts towards the song’s end is fairly blistering, but there’s a tangible solemnity to the rest of the music around it that keeps it in the basement and out of the stratosphere.

Nights in the Dark’s pair of suites illustrate the Venn diagram of California X’s old and new direction: the first portion of “Blackrazor” is a slow, heavy, moody five minutes of dark riffs and busy percussion, like Black Sabbath’s most sinister moments colored over Thin Lizzy’s most progressive ones. The second portion is a riffy, driving, near-seven-minute anthem that could be this band’s “War Pigs.”  Unlike in “Hadley, MA,” Gurtowsky’s solo is the song’s centerpiece here, creating tension, then releasing it, only to snap back and forth several times throughout. It’s captivating. “Summer Wall” enters distorted and fuzzy and distant in its first part, while part two, which closes the album, is as much of a pop song as this band has ever written, with melodic rhythms, bright leads and a nice build that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a nice note to close what’s very much the yin to California X’s yang.

Nights In The Dark is out 1/13 via Don Giovanni. You can stream it via Pitchfork Advance and buy it here.