Bang Bangz remains one of the best things about the Houston music scene. The trio of Mario Rodriguez, Elizabeth Salazar, and Vik Montemayor specializes in an ambient, repetitious, synth-driven kind of indie music that is really quite spellbinding. In particular, Salazar and Rodriguez's vocals cut through the binary wall of sound like a modernist version of Flowers and Machines.
Red City is the trio's first full-length release, coming a year after their stellar self-titled EP. At the time you could clearly feel the band looking for its identity apart from Rodriguez's work with Tax the Wolf, but warming to their potential as a new direction.
From the outset, Red City shows some pretty powerful evolution. It's far smoother, and Rodriguez appears to have really buckled down his production skills in crafting it.
If Bang Bangz the EP had any real flaw, it was a tendency to edge slightly into the reds on Salazar's high notes or drop Montemayor's drums under a crashing keyboard line. This time, he's got it 100 percent right.
"Voltron" opens the record very strongly, with a preamble that calls to mind Harbinger, the impossibly brilliant EP by Bang Bangz's occasional stagemates from Austin, Clouds Are Ghosts. In fact, you can hear a definite influence stemming straight from Harbinger in the opener's preamble, and the wailing choruses that echo Harbinger's "Canvas."
Where it sets itself apart, though, and what seems to be a recurring theme of the album lyrically is a strange and desperate hopelessness. I don't know what the connection is between giant anime robots and clear allusions to dying far away and alone, but whatever it is, it forms the backbone of Red City.
It doesn't get any happier with "Last Day on Earth," which is the first time on the album Rodriguez gets into the game as a vocalist. He and Salazar work very well in complementing each other across vocal lines, with Rodriguez typically taking a more conversational tone opposite Salazar's choir approach.
One of the more interesting things Bang Bangz does is use a constant repetition of lyrics in a kind of meditative, chanting mantra. When you combine it with the beepier, video-game aspect of Salazar's synth lines this time around, it feels kind of like leveling up aurally.
As you allow these motifs and memes to ricochet back and forth through your attention span like two equally skilled computers playing Pong, it has a definitely unsettling effect on the subconscious.
"Silence and violence even at the end of the line," mutters Rodriguez, slightly changing a few words with every utterance. It gets to you.
The only thing keeping Red City from being perfect is that frankly there is too much of it. It's not a long record by any stretch of the imagination, but like Provision they tend to have one good idea and then record it 11 times in a row. There just aren't enough dynamics on the album, with each song blending into each other without ever really giving you a clear impression of the work as a whole. It's a collection of songs, more than an audio narrative.
There are moments for when it tries for a wider reach. The otherwise fantastic love duet "All I Want" opens with a few new sounds and change in timbre, which prepares you nicely for one of the few comparatively upbeat notes on Red City. But like the other shake-up moments on the record, such as "Beach Life" and the title track, it tends to just fall back into pattern. A minute into each and they become indistinguishable from last year's offerings.
Which is why it is such a surprise at how strongly it all ends. "Life for Now" is not an easy song to like, and is probably the least poppy of all 11 songs. It's got a hidden strength to it, though, that ranks it up there with other challenging listens like the title tracks from Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes or the Cranberries' No Need to Argue.
There's just more room to breathe, and you have to go hunting one step at a time on the back of Montemayor's comforting drumming as you seek Rodriguez and Salazar in a foggy web of sound. It's work, but well worth it.
I'm not counting "El Oso Mágico." It's a pretty forgettable instrumental, and if it wasn't the last track no one would miss it.
I'll bring up Harbinger one more time. The thing that makes it my favorite album of the last five years or so is how it uses five really incredible songs to tell a story, complete with acts, beats and narrative rhythm. Houston's Lotus Effect did the same thing on Rabbits & Royalty.
Bang Bangz took what could have been another succinct and memorable EP and spread it a bit too thin, but that doesn't change the quality of what's being spread. This is high-end stuff that you should absolutely be listening to, but their musical sandwich could use a bit more meat and a little less bread.
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Bang Bangz plays with A Sea Es and The Suffers Saturday, March 23 at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak, www.fitzlivemusic.com. Doors open at 8 p.m.