Guerilla Toss’ fifth album, ‘Famously Alive’, is a lively, fresh, and invigorating piece of post-pop output that sees the trio balance accessibility with imagination and innovation.
Ten years ago, Guerilla Toss announced their arrival with the lengthy split single, “Jeffrey Johnson”, which can only be described as experimental. For thirty minutes, the then Boston-based outfit melded punk, math-rock, hardcore rock, and the piercing vocal of Kassie Carlson into a cacophony of noise. The songs were weird and manic, but it was a hint of the band’s limitless creativity and unbridled energy. Over the next decade that included a move to New York, they would further descend into the experimental.
Inspired by the Talking Heads, Deerhoof, and other innovators, they would infuse disco, art-punk, and eventually pop into their sound. Songs like the jerky “Gay Disco”, the feisty EP Flood Dosed, and the cowbell-laced wackiness of their sophomore album, Eraser Stargazer would follow. Their genius, however, ascended to another level with the mind-altering, Twisted Crystal, that shook dance floors and the spacious skies of the Milky Way. While these outputs pushed the boundaries on what is possible, Kassie Carlson, Peter Negroponte, and Arian Shafiee’s fifth full-length, Famously Alive, challenges notions of what is accessible. It does so with Guerilla Toss’ trademark brilliance.
If Sigur Rös can be credited for creating post-rock, Guerilla Toss could be acknowledged as the inventors of post-pop with Famously Alive. The LP by its design is a pop album, but not the typical top-40 cookie cutters heard on the radio. On the contrary, the trio weave neo-psychedelic textures through disco-pop, alt-pop, and even some classic ’80s synth-pop and krautrock. The result is an album that is fresh, alive, and invigorating, yet it is incredibly approachable.
The one-two punch of “Cannibal Capital” and “Famously Alive” lays the groundwork for the album. Following some radio static, a fantastic groove drives the former, which opens the LP with a quirky beat and a buzzing vibe. The latter is a cosmic adrenaline rush with the rhythms pounding feverishly and the electric guitar glimmering high. Carlson’s voice, meanwhile, is layered in a vocoder, giving it a distant, spatial quality.
Beyond the soaring energy, the song’s demonstrate Guerilla Toss’ maturity as artists, as they tackle important issues regarding one’s well-being and the world around us. “Drained my economy of empathy, ecstasy / I’m social with enemies and it takes the best of me”, Carlson sings on “Cannibal Capital”. Her words describe how the competitive and technology-driven world has taken away her humanity. On “Famously Alive”, she addresses the constant chase for acceptance, particularly when it comes to art. When she says, “Famous in your life”, her consoling words could be self-directed.
This message is furthered on the synth-propulsion “Live Exponential”. Solemnly she utters, “I look out lonely / I’m feeling godly, but just for me”. She later adds, “I’m special”, as if reaffirming the band’s place in music. The noise-popper “Happy Me” is the band’s “war cry”. Overdubbed beats, synths, and vocals swirl on this surprisingly hypnotic number that sees the band salute their and everyone’s individuality. On the Danz CM-like electro-pop tune, “I Got Spirit”, Guerilla Toss create the sonic equivalent of sublime delirium. Gently, the guitar, bass, drums, and synths swirl around Carlson’s mechanical vocal. She reminds us immediately to not give up:
“Bigger, we need a winner, people call you a quitter
Urgent, why aren’t you searching?
Current always emerging, better make it an effort
Rushing until it’s breaking”
Guerilla Toss save the biggest moments for the middle of the album. With a Sleigh Bells-like opening, a terrific, heavy bass launches “Mermaid Airplane” at the start before it descends into a smooth, dance-infused groove. While Carlson apologies for forgetting a person’s birthday, the song is a reminder that celebrations can happen every day. Or we can celebrate being alive and feeling the energy of the sun, as Guerilla Toss do on “Wild Fantasy”. The song represents the band reaching a new level with their art – a cosmic roller coaster that is sensual at times and euphoric in the other moments. Carlson’s songwriting is equally dizzying and fantastical.
“Real life, it’s just a bad dream
Breathless, kept me kicking all night, there’s a color scheme
No rest, wings beat at my chest, and in the shape of dark
Grey gull pecking us to go, it said to follow me”
Following a grey gull, however, is not necessary to realize that Guerilla Toss occupy a unique space within music. Even with crafting their most accessible album to date, Carlson, Negroponte, and Shafiee are still pushing the boundaries of what is possible. With Famously Alive, they have done it in a way that makes us believe we have heard it before even when we really have not.
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