When Guerilla Toss arrived in the DIY and art rock scene in the early 2010s, it wasn’t necessarily with a bang or a red carpet procession. It took a while roaming through the various house gigs in Boston for the name to even really take off. That being said, it was immediately recognizable to most people that the band’s artistic tendencies were pushing a sound not easily categorizable. This indefinable quality to their work only furthered when they started to incorporate the likes of disco and funk into their previously noise-centered output.
At this point, the music of Guerilla Toss went from strange but familiar to entirely bizarre. No release of theirs encapsulates this progression more than 2017’s GT Ultra, whose tab-inspired cover art and titular reference to a certain drug-related CIA program only scratched the surface of the acid-soaked disco psychedelia they created. Equal parts manic and melodic, the band managed to invoke a sort of uncanny apocalypse built from textures that don’t quite sound like anything remotely familiar. They quickly followed this record up with 2018’s Twisted Crystal, which turned out to essentially be a slightly more electronic version of GT Ultra. However, releases from the group slowly petered out after that, with the only news coming in the form of an EP. And then in January of this year, they announced a switch to major label Sub Pop Records (known for signing the likes of Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney, Fleet Foxes, etc.), which prompted the question: How would such an eclectic and often unapproachable band navigate a more mainstream outlet?
This is not an instance of a music group making it to a larger stage and entirely losing their identity, nor is it an instance where they completely stick to their guns. Brand new LP Famously Alive feels like Guerilla Toss tried to look at examples of more mainstream pop but couldn’t quite shake off their strange sensibilities — somehow making for one of the most refreshing releases so far this year. Of course, nothing about this record feels sloppy or thrown together. If anything, the combination of their boisterous psychedelic rock and a pop structure akin to something by Charli XCX feels meticulously pieced together. After such a long time since their last album, it’s clear none of that time went to waste.
The first half of the album is a relentless onslaught of some of the most catchy and energizing tracks Guerilla Toss has ever produced. Each song flows so naturally into the next, despite how disparate they can be stylistically. For example, the upbeat headbanger title track — whose sound harkens back to early dream pop-era Sweet Trip (who in hindsight seems like an obvious influence) — moves right into the slower, more off-kilter “Live Exponential” without missing a beat. Similarly, one doesn’t even question the pairing of a song like “Pyramid Humm,” which sounds like an adventurous trip through a carnival on MDMA, with “Excitable Girls” whose ’00s-era acoustic pop feels solely reserved for listening while driving with the windows down. Besides excellent execution, Guerilla Toss seems capable of affording to drift between ideas the way they do because of how consistently talismanic Kassie Carlson is as the vocalist. Despite the instrumental chaos surrounding the music, the clarity and direction of her voice keep everything sufficiently grounded, even when she’s practically screaming.
While the texture and overall instrumentation remain at the forefront of the band’s focus, the lyrical quality of the project seems like a step above the typical thematic-driven word association that often comprises a lot of their work. The opening track “Cannibal Capital” comes across as a critique of the way in which we perceive social relationships as part of an economy. The language used is harrowing and even morose, as if the psychedelia of the music is a front for the extreme hangover described underneath. Another track, “Wild Fantasy,” relays the way in which desires and the world of fantasy can deceive us, how it lulls us and then ensnares us in our own satisfactions. What Famously Alive accomplishes more than anything is offering new avenues for Guerilla Toss to explore in the future. The move to Sub Pop has breathed new life into a band whose previous project was almost four years ago. Nothing felt off-limits to them before — the only difference is that now it seems like they’ve added so many more ideas to their arsenal. One can’t help but find the subtle self-effacement within the naming of the album admirable. Guerilla Toss has seemingly risen from the dead, and with it will come notoriety no one ever expected.
Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.