laughing at a dead man
(Laser Trax Records)
All too often, bands are defined by recommended-if-you-like comparisons, first impressions that stick around long enough to pick up negative connotations. Influences become indictments, the end of a sentence that begins, "They're just ripping off..." It's certainly difficult to avoid the trap with Arlington's Scattergun Reflex. On the surface, it's tempting to write off the band as another group that stole its soul from Jawbox. Though the description is applicable, almost unavoidable, at times, it doesn't quite fit, only coming close to capturing Jeffrey Williams' dexterous guitar work, all razor blades wrapped in rubber bands. Fact is, a large part of Jawbox's sound was derived from J. Robbins' scream-sing vocals and incisive lyrics, which cut just as deep as his serrated riffs. Scattergun Reflex, on the other hand, doesn't have that kind of singer singing those kinds of words. The group doesn't have any lyrics at all (unless you count the repetitive chant that kicks off "Landomite") or anyone to sing them. Not that it needs them.
Most all-instrumental outfits fail because they can't commit to the format, coming off as though they're biding their time until the right singer comes along. Scattergun Reflex proves that a band can have a voice even if it doesn't literally have one. The songs on laughing at a dead man are about everything or nothing, depending on what you hear in the notes, but they are definitely about something. The easiest answer is confusion, because all the grooves and riffs and beats only seem to have no connection to one another -- separate pieces just slightly related because they happen to appear on the same track. Steven Wilson hits all the right wrong notes on his bass, and drummer Zachary Dobbins hits everything else, providing the disjointed backdrop for Williams' frenetic fretting. His fingers run up and down the neck of his guitar, massaging the melody out of so much noise.
Scattergun Reflex sets the bar high early on, when "Landomite," the disc's second track, delivers a back-alley beatdown to Dick Dale, offering a real update of the surf-spy formula rather than more robots-from-outer-space retro shtick. The group lives up to that standard over the course of the rest of the disc without reliving it. "Texas Terry Turbo" is a Ferrari tearing through a muddy dirt road, Williams' guitar occasionally breaking away from Wilson's sludge only to be dragged back into the mighty muck. "The People vs. Sammy," then, is the counterpoint to "Texas Terry Turbo"; Wilson never quite catches up to Williams long enough to do much harm. "I don't have to go back, do you?" answers its own question repeatedly. The song begins and ends half a dozen times, with Williams always sounding as though he's trying to crank a stubborn lawn mower with his guitar; it's the plot of Groundhog Day summed up in just over six minutes. Summing up Scattergun Reflex is not that easy.
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