By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Building Better Bombs
Freak Out Squares
"My mom sent me an email after I gave her the record," says Stef Alexander, "and she said, 'Which part of this did you think that I would like? It's making me tense and stressed-out.'"
Alexander, the singer/guitarist for Building Better Bombs, is sitting on an easy chair in bassist Ryan Olson's apartment while describing a fairly common reaction to Bombs' debut album, Freak Out Squares. Apparently, it's an album not even a mother could love. Then again, Alexander and the rest of Bombs (Olson, drummer Drew Christopherson, and singer/guitarist Isaac Gale) aren't interested in making things easy on the listener—and that includes fans of Bombs' ostensible genre, hardcore.
"We're not pretty for anybody," Alexander says. "We have a little too much melody for the hard, hard, hard kids, plus we are just too noisy and out-there for a lot of the standard hardcore fans." Not to speak of the rock, rap, or trip-hop fan lured into checking out Building Better Bombs by the pedigree of its members' main projects; Olson and Christopherson play in both Mel Gibson and the Pants and Digitata, while Alexander is better known as Doomtree/Rhymesayers rapper P.O.S. Bits of debris and cast-off ideas from those bands cling to the tracks on Freak Out Squares—the squashed hip-hop rideout of "The Action Pact," the cell-phone-static-driven outro of "Cold, Not Frozen"—but this isn't just a side project. Most of the songs on their debut album predate Alexander's hip-hop career.
"For the first record," explains Alexander, "there were a lot of songs that me and Isaac had written forever ago. Since Building Better Bombs had never had a full-length before, we took the best songs that we had back then and brought 'em to these guys." Christopherson and Olson are recent additions to the Building Better Bombs family; originally it was just Alexander, Gale, and a drum machine, with Kai Benson (ex-Swiss Army bassist who works under the name Marshall Larada as a producer for Doomtree) filling in on bass now and again. They're looking to incorporate more of the spirit of that early, hardcore-with-a-drum-machine feel into their live shows now, but the addition of real, live drums and bass has clearly turned Bombs into something hairier, both more sprawling and more volatile.
Freak Out Squares is a daunting album. It might clock in under half an hour, but it's a dead sprint from end to end, at least on first listen, and it's going to scare a lot of people away. Before you can even catch a melody, opener "This Is a Gang" is gone, swallowed whole by "No Handouts," which bursts forth on a feedback squeal and a rolling snare. Alexander's throat-shredding vocals are answered in kind by Gale's even more desperate shouts, and just as the song threatens to run loose, something kind of magical happens. A chugging guitar riff breaks up the forward motion of the song, and you hear Alexander asking, "You guys want to get in here?" in the background. It's a humanizing moment in a sea of distortion, and the disc is peppered with such surprises: the sweetly melodic chorus of "No Hospitals," the chanted breakdown of "Cold, Not Frozen," the distant and darkly echoing vocals of "A Headstart." Like waypoints, these moments guide you through the album, making you realize the music's not shoving you—it's pushing you. It wants to be understood, even when it sounds like pure chaos.
"I feel like that's what we want to try to present live: a total mess," Alexander says. "If you're looking and listening, you'll figure out what's going on, but if you just happen to be around for the half-hour while we're playing, many different noises and sounds will attack and soothe you."
Since Freak Out Squares came out, the band hasn't been doing too much attacking-and-soothing. Their CD-release show, a basement party with their pals the Plastic Constellations, was an invitation-only affair. They're planning a tour of Europe for next fall, but they're also working on incorporating a lot of what they will only obliquely refer to as "gadgetry" into their live show. What precisely are they talking about? They won't say, but they're aware there's only so much four guys can accomplish onstage when the music they make is so demanding.
"When we're in a situation where we realize [that with] the parts we have, we can't add other stuff to it, it's just a matter of playing that the best possible way and finding the groove," says Alexander. "Usually, it's because we're all doing something that we have to focus on and get done right. Like in 'Body Bag,' there's a part where we're all completely going crazy in our own little separate ways, and if we play it wrong it sounds completely horrible, and if we play it right, it sounds...."
As he fumbles for the right term, Olson, who's reclining deeply into his couch, comes up with it: "Correctly horrible."