Schema are cognitive structures that allow us to interpret and act in the world around us, with past experience and social norms dictating the scripts. We know movie theater etiquette. We know how going to a restaurant works. We know how to introduce ourselves to each other. Genre is a type of schema: Its conventions allow rapid classifications and judgments to be made, especially in the world of media. Departures from these patterns feel foreign, and dissonant. Hardly a better example music-wise can be found than Knoxville’s Royal Bangs. Trying to pigeonhole their onslaught of sound – Glam rock? Indie pop? Classic rock? Electronic? Garage pop? - is fruitless. But with their enjoyable third album, Flux Outside, the trio has concocted some of their most cohesive material to date.
Flux Outside begins with “Grass Helmet”, a clamoring, surfy guitar riff that easily fits in with last year’s favorite buzz-genre of lo-fi, sunny pop. Haphazard duet vocals chime in, though, and instead of atonal distortion, we get a glam-rock chorus and an eventual breakdown into whirring electronic noise. It works seamlessly, with relentless energy and a fabulously smooth crescendo to the end. This track functions as a microcosm of the album, as both feature glimpses and moments of identifiable influence that are quickly shrouded in multiple layers of frenetic sound, rendering the Royal Bangs’ style solely their own.
The album continues in the same vein, with dance jam “Fireball” and sultry “Back Then It Was Different” continuing the upbeat tempos and contagious beats, the first adding a touch of electronically filtered vocals, the second channeling a bluesy rhythm. “Triccs” presents the band at their finest, with its grungy guitar alongside pounding percussion. It’s fresh and addictive, especially when vocalist Ryan Schaefer wails “All I want to, want to, want to believe” over Chris Rusk’s syncopated drums, all of it leading into Sam Stratton’s reverb-laden guitar solo. All of the parts work incredibly well together, with each member playing to their threshold, but nobody hogging the spotlight.
As previously mentioned, what differentiates Royal Bangs from other experimental pop bands is their fearless incorporation of elements belonging to so many genres, together forging a sonic signature. Unfortunately, on Flux Outside, this same game-changing concept becomes a double-edged sword: It grows wearisome near the end of the album, and deviations from the formulaic frenzy don’t quite work either.
“Faint Obelisk Two” sounds like a tired regurgitated mixture of “Grass Helmet” and “Fireball”, making one wonder what could have been. Had the tambourine and funky, soulful guitar been developed a little further, instead of strictly relegated to the chorus, this one would be a show stopper. Another example of a deviation is “Bad News, Strange Luck”, where a burning, crescendoing melody takes far too long to kick, in as the lethargic tempo exposes Schaefer’s vocal weaknesses. The second half of the song presents a primarily electronic interlude only to return to a boozy melody and repetition of “bad news, bad news.” Such erratic, averagely executed tempo changes are indeed bad news for the fate of the track.
Luckily, amidst the less than stellar second half of the album, lengthy “Silver Steps” stops the downhill slide. A tight guitar melody accompanied by whimsical chimes transitions into a dancey bass-line and triumphant gang vocals with a meaty hook, enticing with the promise that “you can scream as loud as you please.”
Despite its flaws, Flux Outside is an album filled to the brim with energy, sincerity, and fearlessness of a music world overrun by genre conventions. Instead of adhering to a style that will surely sell, bending to the pretentious expectations of the indie scene, the Royal Bangs are three friends playing the music they like to listen to, and doing so with admirable finesse, resulting in fun for all.