By Alex Szeptycki
New Fries’s latest effort never fails to stimulate: the band has crafted a record that challenges the idea of what a pop song is and can be — in two very different ways.
New Fries (John Nada, Jammy Gibbons, Anni Stefania Spadafora, and Chuj), Is The Idea Of Us
No Wave is a twisted and curious punk remnant, a dark corner of pop music that’s mostly concerned with complete rejection: of melody, of harmony, of song structure, the list goes on. It’s music that insists on sounding like nothing you’ve heard before, and that is what New Fries, stalwarts of the Toronto punk scene, are intent on playing. On their latest album, Is the Idea of Us, the band has stuck to this MO while also simultaneously branching out into instrumental experimentation. The result is a record that is split into two: elemental no-wave punk and then something completely different, at least for this band.
Division, in this case, is not neat. Is the Idea of Us is an exceedingly chaotic album. The band hangs together by a thread; it is as if their instruments are engaged in combat. The opener, “Bangs,” embodies this conflict. Anni Spadafora’s bass, simple and metronomic, sets a sturdy foundation (The Bandcamp notes inform us that she picked up the bass for this album. She does an admirable job). But this solidity does not last: a jarring tempo change underscores the introduction of Tim Fagan’s guitar, a dissonant scream that defies the initial melody. In this way, a traditional rock structure is inverted — the bass is pushed to the melodic forefront, while shrill guitars provide distorted backdrop. When Spadafora begins singing, she tightens her voice into a snarl that drips with menacing swagger. The result is exceedingly brash and arresting, discord.
In contrast, Is the Idea of Us contains efforts at experimentation that diverge from New Fries’s classic sound. This comes mainly in the “Genre” tracks, seven stripped down, instrumental songs. They are striking attempts to express disjunctive ideas. Take “Genre III,” which resembles a panic attack put to music. It’s a simple rock riff that starts to go off the rails, crescendoing and speeding up without remorse. Drummer Jenny Gitman opens her hi hats and lays into her cymbals, elevating the noise to its breaking point. The track is only 40 seconds, but its brevity contributes to its stark strength.
Ironically, the brief weird detours of the “Genre” tracks may be the most interesting part of the record. What’s so exciting about these detours among the dregs is their diversity. The band has plumbed music’s murkier depths and come up with refreshing servings of sonic tidbits, each one more intriguing than the last. “Genre VI” evokes a Berlin nightclub at 6 a.m. Its formless melody acquires considerable power through hypnotic repetition. It drips with the fatigue of a sleepless night, opposing the runaway train cacophony of the preceding track “L’Express.” Meanwhile, “Genre II” could be misconstrued as one of the quieter moments in a Hans Zimmer score. A metallic, windy ambience gives way to a gentle drone that persists for the tune’s short duration. Though they last no more than two minutes apiece, the “Genre” tracks display remarkable depth and adventurousness.
This is not to say that Is the Idea of Us starts and stops with “Genre.” New Fries can still galvanize with their customary sound. Listen to “Lily,” a sprawling sonic adventure that stands as the album’s high point. The groovy bass line and syncopated drums that open the track play off each other in funky bliss while the guitars alternate between frenetic plucking and waves of distortion, reminding you that, yes, this is a no-wave song. Instruments drop in and out as Spadafora’s voice echoes through the mix, its playfulness buoyed by a demonic reverb effect. The tune’s chugging slow burn somehow manages to ratchet up the tension. The result is six glorious minutes of buildup.
My major quibble with Is the Idea of Us is that a formula eventually emerges. The songs here are always solid, but soon it is difficult to escape their predictability, especially when compared to the “Genre” tracks. And this undercuts the punk audacity of New Fries’s sound. Still, the band manages to twist their style around in just enough places to keep the routine at bay. “Mt Tambora” is the biggest outlier, reaching out for new complications. The guitars are uncharacteristically quiet, plucking along in concert with the bass. This hushed background makes the stuttering drumbeat the song’s melody. It’s the album’s most lyrical song, and its most compelling.
Still, the patterned nature of Is the Idea of Us does serve up a few duds along the way. “Genre I” is the weakest of the series; it is a musical idea that didn’t pan out into a full song. Among the more conventional no-wave tracks, the confounding “Arendt / Adler / Pulley Pulley Pulley” fails to deliver. The song tries to conjure up the same aura of dread that’s carried off with aplomb in “Lily,” but it lacks the energy to achieve such a high. The guitar and bass can’t decide if they’re trying to sync up or offset each other. Worse, the quiet guitar plucking that is used throughout the album adds nothing to this track. It’s not quite boring — nothing this far out of left field is — but it comes dangerously close.
Is the Idea of Us is an odd record, one that has the feel of two warring concepts that have been smashed together. It alternates between discordant confrontation and ambient bliss in a way that is confusing and enticing in equal parts. Still, New Fries’s latest effort never fails to stimulate: the band has crafted a record that challenges the idea of what a pop song is and can be — in two very different ways.
Alex Szeptycki is a writer from Charlottesville Virginia. He recently graduated from Stanford University, Majoring in American Studies with a focus in contemporary art and pop culture. He’s currently working as a freelance writer at The Arts Fuse while navigating post grad life in a pandemic.