I listened to Banned Books’ self-titled album for the first time as I walked down the street early in the morning, and when the opening note hit, my timing felt like a mistake. An audacious screech of guitars and cymbals, it was the kind of sound best saved for after at least a few sips of coffee (or maybe a few cups). Fifteen second later, though, the song, “Fuselage,” granted a reprieve when the noise resolved into a melodic riff and smooth singing. Then, another quarter minute or so after that, it was back to explosives. This trading continued irregularly all the way to the subway, where I arrived fully awake and considering the question in the refrain of this opening song: “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
That question often precedes a bold move and is asked by risk takers, a category in which these Philadelphia experimental rockers decisively fall. With three EPs already under their belt, the trio’s debut full-length is the culmination of nearly eight years of exploration in form and sound, skirting the bizarre edges around art-pop and noise rock. Listening to Banned Books is like watching someone jump off a cliff in a wingsuit; the thrill is in the disbelief that they're flying and not just racing out of control.
Of course, the illusion of a lack of control actually requires incredible control. All of the seemingly spontaneous outbursts—the spurts of guitar and drums at the beginning of “Crown Fragments” that hint at the impending explosion, the anxious guitar lick dropping into another section in “Knave,” among other moments with an improvisational feel—require a high degree of skill and coordination among the three members of the band, Matthew Dermond, Zane Kanevsky, and April Heliotis.
They are so skilled, in fact, that they occasionally seem to take themselves out of the equation entirely, giving the impression that their instruments have a mind of their own. It is said of some movies and books that the setting is a character; similarly, in Banned Books, the guitar feels like a separate member of the band. Despite the presence of harmonious vocal melodies, a pretty, clear voice, and effortlessly good lyrics, the guitar and all of its wonky twisting, surging, and leaping is what frequently takes center stage. In “The Time it Takes to Make a Move,” for example, the vocals provide an intro, then a raspy guitar line takes over and provides a melodic refrain. Though tonally very different, the album follows a similar experimental line to that of Dirty Projectors, for whom instruments are voices and voices are instruments.
In nine tunes that swing from chaos to harmony, twitchiness to calm, and noise to quiet, Banned Books asks us to jump off the cliff and hover at the edge of control. Fortunately for us, it turns out that the worst that can happen in that process is pretty darn good.