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Coincidentally with the release of Clovis Points, an album by Alarms & Controls, there’s a piece in this month’s Smithsonian magazine about Clovis points, the exquisitely carved and very sharp spear tips that North American peoples used widely more than 10,000 years ago. I plumbed the article for some sort of nugget that might cleverly sum up the record, but there wasn’t much. Clovis points were the dominant technology of an ancient culture; Clovis Points is arty punk rock.
Let’s stick with that theme of artifacts for a minute, however. Alarms & Controls’ two founders, guitarist Chris Hamley and drummer Vin Novara, played in 1990s bands that deserve revivals, including the underappreciated 1.6 Band (Novara’s group before he moved from Long Island to the D.C. area and helped form The Crownhate Ruin) and the agitated Antimony (Hamley’s band after the legendary Circus Lupus broke up, but before The Monorchid formed). If you need any annotation to help make sense of Clovis Points, start with those bands’ records.
If that history is old hat for you, then Clovis Points will sound like a natural-but-smartypants extension of its predecessors. The trio cites old-school prog as a primary touchstone, but anybody with a working knowledge of weird, thinky underground rock is more likely to hear strong echoes of Shudder to Think (“Khmer Avatar”) or The Minutemen (“Running Hard on the Trickledown,” “Reanimus Cataract”). Technique is the thing here, and the recording/mixing work by J. Robbins (Jawbox, Office of Future Plans, etc.) limits the amount of sonic adornment. Whereas Hamley and Novara’s previous bands tended to seethe—and rarely shied away from big payoffs—Alarms & Controls emphasizes touch: Novara’s nimble use of cymbals, Hamley’s knack with a pinched chord, and bassist Michael Honch’s warm way of binding everything together. (He’s since left the band, and Arthur Noll has taken his place.)
There’s conspicuous math, too, of course. The time signatures of songs like the album-opening “Megalodon” or the herky-jerky “Your Friend in Brown Corduroy” provide either nerdy thrills or unmitigated distractions, depending on your tolerance level. Moments like those are where the prog influence is strongest, but Alarms & Controls often springs its twists and turns in a way that owes more to Captain Beefheart than Bach. Puzzles are implied, but not always solved. Hamley’s vocals, likewise, can be inscrutable. “Anxiety Disorder,” for example, is sung in second-person (“You set the trap/That broke your back/And started your life collapsing”) but the nasally tension in his voice suggests that the narrator could be the subject.
Perhaps appropriately, the most sonically subdued tracks are the most instantly gratifying ones. “Ocean of Storms,” with its undulating backbeat and jazzy chords, is a rare stretch of breathing room. And the midtempo title track closes the album with a hint of uncomplicated emotion; if anything, it’s blues. “Where are the technologies that/Put our feet back on the ground,” Hamley asks rhetorically, as if all the electric fuss on Clovis Points was just an attempt to clear the mind.