Music Reviews
California X

California X California X

(Don Giovanni) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

I’m almost certain that many will draw comparisons between California X and Dinosaur Jr, and for the most part, they are absolutely warranted. Both bands are from the same part of Northern Massachusetts, the wonderful town of Amherst, and share a decent amount of sonic similarities. Frontman/guitarist Lemmy Gurtowsky seems to have a comparable penchant for drop-tuned guitars, searing stompbox-distortion, and flustered string bends as his hometown predecessors. But don’t get caught up in the overlap: California X are a very far cry from straight forward imitation-grunge. Rather, the band’s focus seems to be on developing a synergy between their ‘90s alt-rock influences and saturated riff-rock ambition. 

I think the main point here, if there is one to be made, is that California X sound rather placeless, and not necessarily like a band that simply missed the boat for the late ‘80s underground scene. In fact, songs like Sucker, Mummy, and Pond Rot seem more analogous to modern sludge metal than to anything that came out of the Grunge era. The pairing of hard-nosed riffing and ethereal solo lines on Sucker sound more in line with bands like Torche and Baroness than Dinosaur Jr. Even Gurtowsky’s desperate, shouting vocals sound far more enthused and guttural than any of the meandering mutterings from J. Mascis. Of course, California X are a bit more off-the-cuff and primitive than the polished, technical guitar noodling of John Baizley and Steve Brooks, but in terms of raw energy, they are very well comparable. 

Outstanding comparisons aside, California X are certainly capable of standing on their own. Raucous, unwieldy tunes like Hot Hed and Curse Of The Nightmare display a band with their own unique brand of high-energy indie rock. Hot Hed in particular seems to meld elements of pop craftsmanship with the sound of a broken Arbiter fuzz pedal. While the vocals may be buried in the mix, one can’t help but cling to the few decipherable words as if they were a life preserver in the middle of a riptide. However, they do peek above the mix long enough to let their presence be known. “It wont be long now / It wont be long now I can tell,” Gurtowsky lets out before breaking into an indiscernible whimper. For most bands, this would seem to be a cop-out to hide some genuinely bad lyricism. But there’s nothing cowardly to be found here, rather a unique emotive quality. While I still don’t know the lyrics that follow, and prefer to leave it a mystery until they reveal themselves to me over time, I can almost fill them in by inference because I can feel the message they are trying to convey.

Likewise, Spider X follows a similarly chaotic, riff-centric energy as Hot Hed, but with even more aim. Gurtowsky and company come in like a slow-motion still of Leo Gallagher taking a sledgehammer to a watermelon. As manic and frenzied the scene is, there’s something amazingly cathartic and cleansing about it all. Again, the lyrics are difficult to figure out, but at some point they become entirely inconsequential because the tension built with those few, basic power chords and haunting melodies says it all. Even, the solo section doesn’t seem to break the increasing tensity, rather adding to it until the track’s inevitable dissolution. Finally, the ridiculous, metaphorical hammer shatters the watermelon -- a triumphant, melodic piano breaks through and suddenly all feels renewed. 

Originality is something to always question in music. However, our search to discredit anything that may have even the slightest hint of homage can be quite destructive. What’s often forgotten is that while you can imitate all the guitar tones, chord progressions, and lyrical cues of your favorite bands, you can’t synthesize emotion -- and that’s precisely the key asset that truly separates this band from any nostalgia-driven, grunge wannabes. Is California X a revelation to modern music? No, but very few albums are. But is it simply a delinquent derivative from a decade long passed? Absolutely not.