It rarely bodes well when a band has to replace its lead singer. For every AC/DC, there are a dozen Black Sabbaths—acts that struggle with identity issues in the wake of a signature vocalist’s departure. But D.C.’s quirky quartet Apes are getting along just fine with new member Breck Brunson, who takes over microphone duties on Ghost Games, the band’s first release for local label Gypsy Eyes. Brunson replaces Joe Halladay (a replacement for original Apes vocalist Paul Weil), but he sounds like he’s been in the band for years. That’s a tough feat to pull off, given the band’s well-established musical idiosyncrasies, yet Brunson’s elastic pipes—somewhere between Buggles-era Trevor Horn and David Byrne with his nuts in a vise—are well-suited to Apes’ keyboard-heavy freak-pop ditties. Once Brunson gets in your head, good luck getting him out. As a band, Apes are arch deconstructionists, cracking open the bruised shell of the last 30 years of rock and reassembling the fragments as they see fit. Like sometime tourmates Liars, the band deals in untidy bursts of noise and unconventional rhythms. Yet they also revere melody and hook, and the group’s best work has always teetered between avant-garde skronk and pop euphoria. On Ghost Games, the line is completely obliterated. Keyboardist Amanda Kleinman produces a wide range of textures while retaining a propulsive edge that accentuates Jeff Schmid’s brawny drumming and bassist Erick Jackson’s industrial-strength tone. The album’s opener, “Practice Hiding,” sounds like a ’70s art-rock band doing battle with Japanese robots: Off-kilter keyboard runs and a pugilistic backbeat are met by Brunson’s soaring vocals. You can’t really tell what he’s singing about, but it’s probably ridiculous, hostile, or a combination of the two. If you think that more tunes should prominently feature handclaps, then “Beat of the Double” is your jam, complete with a catchy chorus stuffed with wordless wailing and hyperinflated synth riffs. The album is pretty much filler-free, and the band’s flexible throughout. The airy “Walk Thru Walls,” which boasts a twinkling intro from Kleinman, is quite lovely; Brunson consistently manages to find the perfect melody to complement the music’s oddball charms, and his tuneful vocals on this number are no exception. “Dr. Watcher,” on the other hand, plays like aerobics music for the deranged: Schmid’s relentless kick-drum pulse anchors the brazenly herky-jerky music, over which Brunson harps like a raving circus carny. Apes may have had trouble holding down a singer in the past, but Brunson is an undeniably fortuitous find—here’s hoping they keep him.
Apes play the Black Cat on Friday, Feb. 29.