Revisiting Guerilla Toss’s body of work presents no easy task. First, there’s the problem of tracking everything down—the singles, EPs, LPs, live albums, and split albums; the different labels, including Digitalis Limited, Tzadik, Feeding Tube, NNA Tapes, and the latest, DFA Records, among others; and the CDs, vinyl releases, and tapes. Since their first release in 2010 (or 2012, depending on who you ask), the band in its various incarnations has put out a nearly untraceable amount of music, earning a name for themselves in native Boston’s DIY scene and beyond, in experimental/freak/punk arenas.
Then there’s the problem of spending an excessive amount of time immersed in their sound. In those many releases—particularly the earlier ones—Guerilla Toss is, well, abrasive. In Jeffrey Johnson (2012), GTOSS (2013), and Kicked Back Into the Crypt (2013), singer Kassie Carlson shouts her way through a cacophony of roaring guitars, unpredictable drums, and anxious synths, legible in no other realm of meaning than that of pure energy. Of course, all of that egregiously oversimplifies the complex layers that comprise Guerilla Toss’ hard-to-penetrate noise, but the point is this: Their music is feral and electrifying, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
Guerilla Toss lets you in in their own way, though. With the savage-yet-virtuosic percussion of Peter Negroponte, Arian Shafiee’s screeching and rumbling guitar, and a surprisingly graspable and groovy bass played by an ever-changing list of bassists (currently in the adept hands of Greg Albert), the band plays music that, against your better judgment, gets you to move. Absurd tales of their live shows bear that out. In their early days, at Boston’s Gay Gardens and other DIY hubs (most now sadly defunct), they earned a reputation for their broken guitars, occasional nudity, and ability to incite a crowd to violent moshing with just the four numbers of a count off. Oberlin College once banned them from playing a show on campus. Since then, by their own account, they have settled down. The aggressive jostling has transformed into more civil form of bouncing and booty shaking or, as Negroponte calls it in a recent Impose Magazine interview, the “hippie mosh,” which involves bumping around as one collective audience unit.
That kind of punk-meets-hippie talk is surprisingly representative of a band that falls between many strange intersections. At the surface, their work strikes with the fuck-everything abandon of punk, but it explores with the all-embracing curiosity of jam band music, floating and meandering through trippy landscapes. Sometimes their lyrics match the fiery simplicity of punk politics (“Desire / Try it / Go on and buy it,” from “Multibeast TV” on 2016’s Eraser Stargazer), while others contain the wandering surrealism of the psychedelic genre (seemingly much of 2013’s Gay Disco, if the words were more decipherable). Guerilla Toss plays their instruments and screams like punks, but they talk like slacker hippies, citing old drug habits and occasional continued experimentation as factors in their music. But the band works way too hard, knows their instruments way too well, and creates songs that are way too weird and complicated for the titles “slackers” or “punks” to suffice; they also require the controlled experimentation implied by art rock or one of its many subcategories.
At the start, Guerilla Toss may have shied away from such a label. They treated their skills, along with the music-school training that developed them, as some kind of secret, masking them under noisy music and evasive interviews. But their latest album, Eraser Stargazer, marks the culmination of progress against that impulse. Less noisy and more rigid, it more clearly reveals its distinct parts—weaving synths, intricate beats that remain steady through shifting time signatures, and bass lines that bounce and pop with hooks. Carlson’s voice also comes further into the forefront, mastering a more nuanced spectrum of shouts that includes the prophetic chant of a cave-dwelling oracle on “Perfume,” Betty Boop in a rage on “Diamond Girls,” and your worst nightmare on “Big Brick.” The Guerilla Toss of 2016 remains harsh and a bit wicked (Boston sense of the word included), but with more space for the hardcore averse.
As they tell it, that musical development is a natural result of aging and maturing, a process that has also resulted in a move to New York, the shedding of band members who could not commit enough time, and the reduction of drug use to once-in-a-while experimental trips. The grown-up Guerilla Toss takes itself seriously, but without compromising the deranged humor that has characterized the band throughout their career. It’s just that now, as Carlson’s voice rises into a sharp, twisted “ha ha ha” in “Diamond Girls” and other places, more people will laugh, shake, and gently—lovingly—mosh along with her.