American trio, Spotlights, are a cult band with a strong DIY ethic. Now on their fourth LP and first for Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records, they hit the road at the end of April as the support to Mr Bungle and Melvins on their North American Tour. They also released a documentary about the making of current album Alchemy of the Dead after respected filmmaker, John Pope, approached them following a live show with Cave In last year. You must ask: Is there a band with more of a quiet buzz about them in the dark alternative scene?
Like New York experimental rock duo, Netherlands, the three members of Spotlights have the talent to write catchy pop songs with an art-school respectability. Instead, they choose to shun the verse-chorus format and concentrate on composing from a core of nihilistic guitar noise. ‘Beyond the Broken Sky’, is the definition of an album opener rather than a standalone song that happens to be track number one. Guitar pedal effects and faint keyboard melodies clash with low-volume guitar distortion and sporadic wind chimes. A flanger-effect voice saunters in and out like cigarette smoke. There’s no pop structure here, no chorus, no effort to grab your TikTok-infected attention span with a hook. The only climax arrives at the three-quarter mark in a ringing cacophony of sludgy power chords and fuzzy bass notes.
Spotlights unearth a coherent sound here that lies somewhere between the dreamier textures of Deftones, the layered guitar overdrive of Hum, and the ironic smiles of Teenage Fanclub. The last feature will take time to grow on you if you approach this from a heavier listening perspective. Listen to the industrial trip-hop beats and filthy bass tones of ‘The Alchemist’. It’s not clear if this song has an end destination underneath the weight of the bleeding amps. Faint traces of melody disappear in the black hole of thick doom chords. The vocals are introverted. You might even call them lethargic. The contrast between the guitars and vocals will intrigue you. Surely, this music needs more muscle at the microphone, right?
Can you imagine if the successor scene to grunge followed the path that Spotlights map out on ‘Algorithmic’? We’d be spared the dad rock interpretations of Pearl Jam, and the term “post-grunge” might mean something. This is how you use an ‘amen’ drum beat and disguise it as rock. Mario Quintero’s melodic voice ruminations dare to repeat a melody and establish a chorus. English filth-pop duo, Curve, will know these timbres from their heyday in the 1990s. The Melvins-esque sludge affair of ‘False Gods’ runs a line of saxophone expressions through the mix but never commits to the post-metal climax your excitement craves. Even so, it’s a fascinating piece of alternative rock – yes, that’s right, the genre that offers nothing of note these days can still pique your interest when Spotlights defile it with their secret agenda to make it darker and less predictable.
Only one reservation persists as you wade through the sophisticated noise rock of Alchemy for the Dead. The indie rock vocal melodies are too weak to spellbind you with dream pop brilliance on ‘Repeat the Silence’ and ‘Crawling Toward the Light’. Both have enough musical merit to raise an appreciative nod, but the latter moves towards the sorrowful pop-rock of The Killers when you want the hysteria of Chat Pile to match the sludgy guitars. The ethereal vocals in the former breeze through the mix with indecision. Sometimes, they strike the balance just right. ‘Ballad in the Mirror’ is much better and more voyeuristic in its loose voice arrangement. Here, the trio strip out the chorus and replace it with a ritual of grungy doom chords to do the business – it’s a wise decision.
Spotlights know the route they must follow to find their own place of settled land, and they show on album number four that seclusion works best for them. They don’t want to write catchy pop songs. Like Failure, their aim is to vandalise pop music with distortion and noise. A world where everything is upbeat and optimistic is a world in denial.
Release Date: 28/04/2023
Record Label: Ipecac Records
Standout tracks: Algorithmic, False Gods, Ballad in the Mirror
Suggested Further Listening: Netherlands – Severance (2022), Aborym – Hostile (2021), Boris – W (2022)