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Deerhoof – Future Teenage Cave Artists

Dan Webb

Following their hit-and-miss Madonna-inspired chamber pop sojourn of recent years, influential American cult band Deerhoof have returned to their noise-pop roots with a timely response to a world in a constant, cataclysmic state of flux. Growing in disdain, distortion and dissonance over the course of its 37 minutes, the post-apocalyptic Future Teenage Cave Artists is far and away their best and most compelling record since the outstanding Breakup Song (2012).

So many bands and artists seemingly find themselves stuck in a never-ending battle trying to adapt and bend their sound to keep up with modern trends. It’s refreshing in a way that after more than a quarter of a century together, Deerhoof collectively felt comfortable going in the opposite direction; looking to a sound of the past to paint a picture of the future.

Indeed, longtime fans will no doubt be pleased to hear a classic Deerhoof sound from the get-go. Title track and single “Future Teenage Cave Artists” is characterised by three distinct parts. The first sounds somewhat anthemic, striking an optimistic tone – “Gonna be a couple vandals and be set free, gonna carve both our initials into a tree”. It shifts gears abruptly at the 1:30 mark with what sounds like a bridge, only it’s exactly where a chorus would traditionally be. “Try my sci-fi” sings Satomi Matsuzaki in her incomparable style, over lo-fi cascading piano notes courtesy of founding drummer Greg Saunier. Reverting to the original leitmotif shortly thereafter, a manic, multi-tracked drum solo soon paves the way for a defeated-sounding outro; “But you stopped me, you stopped me” sings Saunier in his distinct falsetto.

“Sympathy for the Baby Boo” is undeniably weird by anyone’s measure. Opting for indecipherable time signature choices over a T. Rex-style production aesthetic, the track will likely prove more than enough to scare off anyone who isn’t a rusted-on fan of the band. Intermittent Keith Richards-esque guitar solos with a tasteful amount of distortion showcase the band’s professed love of The Rolling Stones.

Scratch the surface just a little and the intricately-woven, though admittedly repetitive “The Loved One” will reveal more than what first meets the ear. But “O Ye Saddle Babes” is where things start to get really interesting. The tempo is set with a galloping, bass-heavy loop which sounds right out of Warren Ellis’ playbook. With an awe-inspiring amount of rhythmic displacement and control of their respective instruments – and with particular mention of the dissonant, contrapuntal guitar lines courtesy of John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez – “O Ye Saddle Babes” is equal parts punk, grunge and Ornette Coleman. Somehow, remarkably, it’s all held together by Saunier’s unique and masterful drumming technique.

The disjointed melody on “New Orphan Asylum for Spirited Deerchildren” sounds like a heavily medicated night out. “Why would you shoot my bambis” questions Matsuzaki with particularly eerie timing, given the album’s release in the same week peaceful protesters and journalists have been inexplicably brutalised by militarised police. It’s easy to feel that the world is going to shit in 2020, and this feeling feeds directly into the overarching theme of this album. But as Saunier recently pointed out on social media, “Let’s not say this country going to hell. It was started with genocide. It became economically powerful via slavery. It ran on greed, corruption, violence and exploitation. It is emerging from hell.”

“Zazeet” sounds like an offcut from Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica (1969). A baffling concoction, it’s driven by an undercurrent of frantic guitar work and a propulsive beat. “Fraction Anthem” is a soothing, downtempo follow-up with biblical prose, recalling “Hallelujah Chorus” from their 2002 album Reveille; “Of the same blood and the same flesh, we all partake of that one bread… hallelujah”.

“‘Farewell’ Symphony” is a top-notch lo-fi cut with layer upon layer of biting, industrial sawtooth sounds which feels as though it could self-destruct at any moment. Jazzy, contrapuntal piano in the outro strikes as an intriguing and bewildering choice, though it foreshadows tracks to come. Indeed, piano takes centre stage at the start of “Reduced Guilt”. The track has a free-flowing feel to it, though once the drums kick in it becomes apparent it’s in 5/4. The exemplary lyrics, a collaborative effort with Sarah Harris, carry a yin-yang-like, dark-light juxtaposition with each new line; “Every morning I check if I have died, I’ve survived, I dream of wild things, they prey on me.”

“Damaged Eyes Squinting into the Beautiful Overshot Sun” serves as a climactic oeuvre, building to a crescendo before Bach church cantata, “I Call on Thee” carries us out. Saunier proves to be equally as proficient at piano as he is at drums in this lo-fi, dampened room recording. Imperfections such as creaking pedals and stool sounds are embraced rather than shunned. The piece serves as a comforting and pensive end to an album heavy in its themes and use of dissonance.

As the album’s press release rightfully points out, at times it feels as though Future Teenage Cave Artists was recorded in a cave with unreliable electricity and insecure food supplies. In reality, much of the album was recorded through the built-in mic of a laptop. The lo-fi production choices and techniques are top-notch, the lyrics poetic and worthy of dissection, the arrangements always intriguing and the performances delivered with a sense of purpose. Overall, it’s an accomplished effort from a great band, inviting repeated listens. Giving pause to the ways of the past, its fraught message provides at least a glimmer of hope for the future.