Glass Beach disappeared for half a decade and came back a different band. It’s not that new album Plastic Death forgoes the ambitious sweep and madcap inspiration of 2019’s The First Glass Beach Album, but the Los Angeles quartet wields those powers in alternate ways here, in service of music that seems to exist in a separate dimension from the band’s early work. You know how in TRON human characters enter into a video game world and become digital versions of themselves? Plastic Death feels like Glass Beach making the opposite move, crossing over from their hyper-online origins into the pages of rock history.
Plastic Death pulls from a whole bunch of genres, but first and foremost it stikes me as a prog-rock record. I’m talking Yes and Rush. I’m talking drum fills of staggering technical proficiency, grandiose synthesizer flourishes, slicing guitar solos and overdriven seventh chords one might mistake for jazz fusion. Glass Beach have always had a proggy streak, but their multi-part epics were shot through with high-strung chiptune emo that gave their band a distinctly modern flair. Despite some flashes of resemblance to How It Feels To Be Something On-era Sunny Day Real Estate, sometimes the band’s chosen descriptor “post-emo” barely even fits anymore. They sound, and I mean this in the best way, like Radiohead gone full Guitar Center.
I don’t want to make too much of the fact that Glass Beach made this album while isolating together in a house during pandemic lockdown. Three members of the band shared an apartment in Los Angeles when they were making LP1, so it’s not like they’ve never written and recorded in person. Still, Glass Beach have always been (and have always branded themselves as) an internet-native band. They’ve collaborated over Zoom and performed concerts in Minecraft, and their debut album felt like something only musicians raised in the progressive corners of Twitch and Discord could have made. The immediate difference that stands out to me is that Plastic Death forgoes a lot of those extremely online signifiers. It sounds like a shift from URL to IRL — or, as with so much current pop culture, like pressing onward into the future by circling back to the past.
Not that anyone but Glass Beach could have come up with this particular inspired jumble. “This album is the Pacific garbage patch: cultural trash strewn together seemingly by accident, standing in stark juxtaposition to each other,” frontperson J McClendon explains in the album’s official bio. It’s a vivid way of explaining the way genres and textures combine on Plastic Death — the way the band reclaims detritus like prog and jazz fusion, but also gnarled alt-J-style digital alt-rock and quirky, ambitious mid-aughts blog-rock. (Remember Evangelicals?) The neoclassical piano figures that open the album, the crunching metal riff that emerges near the end of “Slip Under The Door,” the pretty acoustic arpeggios that kick off “Guitar Song,” the drum ‘n’ bass-esque programmed beat that careens through the middle of “Whalefall,” the orchestral arrangement that carries “The Killer” home — it all hangs together as part of a singular aesthetic.
Some of that synthesis has to do with McClendon’s distinctive warble. At times they push their voice into wild shrieking, impassioned exclamations, or a supercharged falsetto that calls back to the most intense moments on The First Glass Beach Album. But more often they default back to a low, nasal mumble that evokes the Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison (the propulsive “Motions” is like Change with a horn section), alt-J’s Joe Newman, and especially Thom Yorke.
The Yorke resemblance is amplified by a change in lyrical philosophy, as McClendon leaves behind the last record’s direct storytelling for a more abstract approach, turning the album into more of a prism to be interpreted. Lines like “A recursive dream of a panic attack/ The bell keeps ringing/ Slip under the door” could be ripped from one of the Radiohead singer’s old notebooks. Some songs allude to interpersonal drama, nostalgic yearning, and the double-edged sword of success in a creative field; the subject of lasting versus temporary art comes up right away via a barely audible sampled conversation between lead guitarist Layne Smith and their roommate. Despite those clear conceptual guideposts, there’s a grand, apocalyptic quality to McClendon’s writing that dovetails with such cataclysmic music — and like the music, it defies easy explanation.
The ocean and its depths loom large, and not just because McClendon compared the album to the Pacific garbage patch. Opening track “Coelacanth” is named for an ancient fish believed to be extinct until discovered in 1938. The title of closer “Abyss Angel” evokes Abaddon, the biblical Destroyer that arises from the bottomless pit to command an army of locusts in a prophecy from the book of Revelation, but also bioluminescent deep-sea creatures like the one depicted on the album cover. At the center of the tracklist is “Whalefall,” a reference to when a whale’s corpse sinks to the ocean floor and becomes the hub for a whole ecosystem of living organisms. The music in between those waypoints could easily be taking place in that kind of underwater environment, tumultuous and saturated, full of uncommon sensations.
Glass Beach have pulled off a rare sophomore album feat. Plastic Death maintains some clear connective tissue with its predecessor but feels like an entirely new phase of evolution for the band. It’s chaotic but carefully choreographed, flashy but not at the expense of songwriting and atmosphere. It makes all those disparate parts feel like outgrowths of the same vision. Songs build gradually and gorgeously, then rip open and go nuts. (That “Puppy” finale, woo doggie!) Tracks that at first feel like incomprehensible whirlwinds snap into focus and end up catchier than some pop tunes that are infinitely less complex. The time away from the spotlight was so well spent that I can’t help wondering what Glass Beach might sound like another five more years from now — how far they’ll advance beyond their initial groundbreaking template, how self-possessed they’ll continue to be despite it all, which thrilling new forms the music will take. In the meantime I’m going to keep drawing life from Plastic Death.
Plastic Death is out 1/19 on Run For Cover.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Sleater-Kinney’s Little Rope
• Green Day’s Saviors
• Mary Halvorson’s Cloudward
• PACKS’ Melt The Honey
• Brittney Spencer’s My Stupid Life
• Vemod’s The Deepening
• Slift’s Ilion
• 1K Phew & Zaytoven’s Pray For Atlanta
• Flesh Tape’s Flesh Tape
• Birthmark’s Birth Of Omni
• Keyon Harrold’s Foreverland
• Nick Oliveri’s N.O. Hits At All Vols. 8 & 9
• Neck Deep’s Neck Deep
• EKKSTACY’s EKKSTACY
• Selmer’s Body Wash
• Chemtrails’ The Joy Of Sects
• Bolts Of Melody’s Film Noir
• Upon Stone’s Dead Mother Moon
• Niko Moon’s Better Days
• The Fauns’ How Lost
• Conchúr White’s Swirling Violets
• Brown Horse’s Reservoir
• Ethan Iverson’s Technically Acceptable
• Saxon’s Hell, Fire And Damnation
• Black Grape’s Orange Head
• Be Safe’s Unwell
• The Reytons’ Ballad Of A Bystander
• Lil Dicky’s PENITH (The DAVE Soundtrack)
• Daniel Johnston’s ALIVE IN NEW YORK CITY
• 90 Day Men’s We Blame Chicago box set
• Dolly’s Interloper EP
• ericdoa’s DOA EP
• The Asteroid No.4’s Tremble EP
• UMI’s talking to the wind EP
• Maeve Steele’s Honeyland EP
• Town Mountain’s Dance Me Down Easy: The Woodstock • Sessions EP
• NMIXX’s Fe3O4: BREAK EP