On the Verge

Cymbals Eat Guitars were eager to change things up for their much-anticipated sophomore release

Opening a second album with a dense, bombastic, 8 1/2-minute song is certainly bold, but Cymbals Eat Guitars treat such a move as a calling card.

Lenses Alien is a big, loud alternative-rock album that showcases the multitude of strengths of a band on the verge of breaking big. Both catchy and complex, with big drums and churning guitars, the album recalls some of the stalwart alternative bands of the 1990s, but never comes off as a mere homage.

"The only conscious goal that we started out with for how it sounds was to have it sound closer to how the four of us sound together when we play live," says bassist Matt Whipple.

That adherence to live performance is no surprise, considering the two years of touring the band put in between the debut record and its follow-up. But it also points to how Cymbals Eat Guitars has been able to carve out a unique niche in the indie-rock world, distinct from both their peers and their influences.

"It's a second record for Cymbals Eat Guitars as a project, but it's the first record the four of us have made together where everybody had an equal say," Whipple says.

Guitarist Joseph D'Agostino and drummer Matthew Miller—classmates at Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, N.J.—formed the band in 2007, taking the name from a description Lou Reed used for the Velvet Underground. Sound-wise, the band's inspiration came from the generation after Reed—primarily Sonic Youth, but also Pavement and Modest Mouse, all trendsetters in different ways. Keyboardist Brian Hamilton and Whipple came on board later, replacement members recruited just in time for a stretch of touring with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and the lineup was set.

The band released Why There Are Mountains themselves in 2009, earning buzz-band praise from Pitchfork and the like. They toured the U.S. with Los Campesinos! and the Thermals, scored European dates with the Flaming Lips and the Hold Steady, and played festivals like Lollapalooza and Glastonbury.

For the follow-up record, Cymbals Eat Guitars signed to Barsuk Records and teamed with producer John Agnello, whose work with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Screaming Trees made him a dream fit for the band.

"Working with John was wonderful. Obviously, his discography looms pretty large for us in terms of influence," Whipple says. "Creatively, it was also a great partnership. He gave us exactly the kind of leeway to pursue the ideas we already had, and he also gave us exactly the right kind of pushback that we needed."

Despite the incredible reception Why There Are Mountains received, the band knew from the start that they wanted to go in a different direction.

"The last record was heavily overdubbed. There are a lot of extra instruments that obviously we don't re-create live. That aspect wasn't something we were interested in," Whipple says.

On Lenses Alien, gone are the horns and strings, and in their place is the process that took years of touring to come into place: four musicians sharing ideas, creating sounds together and stitching together different parts instinctively. The whole is a sound that depends on each member's equal contribution.

"When a band goes through lineup changes, or even just one new member joins, it takes a little while, a few tours or however many shows, to just get comfortable playing together and to develop that intuition of knowing what the other guy is going to do, and doing something complementary to it," Whipple says. "It took about a year to get to where we could collaborate on writing parts and writing songs and have it be a little more effortless."

Lenses Alien is psychedelic, crushing and noisy at times, somber and hazy at others. There's a dark undercurrent to the lyrics, drawn out and matched sonically with a seductive, magnetic pull.

"There's a little bit darker of a vibe with this record than the last one," Whipple says. "That has a lot to do with Joe's lyrics and some of the sounds we created to match the vibe of those poems that eventually became songs."

Lenses Alien, released on Aug. 30, has met with positive reviews, typically centering on "Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)," that ambitious album opener that's an ever-shifting thrill ride of a song. D'Agostino's howling vocals and the shrieking guitars drive the midsection with apocalyptic noise, but Hamilton's piano rings out through the haze. It's a song that sets the stage for the rest of the album.

"Keep Me Waiting" begins with a guitar squeal, but chugs along energetically like a classic power-pop single, with a shouty chorus that frames the guitars in a clear melody. "Plainclothes" is road-trip music thrust into a darker realm. "Wavelengths," a laid-back song that leans toward romantic, brings acoustic guitars to the front. "Secret Family" finds the band turning playful, more garage-rock than alternative.