On 2012’s I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, Cold Specks (aka Al Spx) managed to successfully, without nostalgia, tap into gospel music’s timelessness by pairing gothic-tinged folk songs with tight, subdued production — a solid formula that allowed Spx to showcase her striking vocals. Two years later, she’s changed her sound rather drastically. Gothic imagery is no longer just a vague part of her music, it’s her foundation, making Neuroplasticity — with its surprising emphasis on skronking, atonal horns, and loud, stomping percussion — almost feel like an offshoot of the new Swans record (which she also sang on). Unlike To Be Kind, though, Spx’s album doesn’t uplift or unnerve, nor does it come close to channeling that sense of euphoria Michael Gira always seems to be chasing.
Structurally, nearly every song is strong, particularly the vibraphone-laden “Exit Plan” (which Gira lends his vocals to), the creakily cathartic “A Formal Invitation”, and the noir dancehall vamp “Absisto” — but nothing here gets to reach its maximum potential due to watered down, claustrophobic arrangements. Most frustratingly, Spx’s gorgeous, earthy vocals aren’t provided the space to soar. Instead, they feel crunched and confined by the repetitive instrumentation that incessantly clutters things up. Take “Living Signs”: “I found solid proof/ Of living signs,” she sings, her voice swelling underneath a noodle-y guitar riff that plays throughout the entire track. Rather than buoying and enhancing Spx’s vocals, though, the riff, as well as a slew of other generic horn and synth flourishes, draws attention away from it.
Neuroplasticity, at times, makes Spx sound out of place on her own record. The sparse, soulful energy of I Predict a Graceful Expulsion seemed as though it were written around the style, timbre, and emotional essence of her voice. It was the star, the main reason for listening. Neuroplasticity may have been the album Cold Specks has always wanted to make, but that ends up being its biggest flaw. It’s emulative. In trying to channel one of her biggest influences — the powerful, pummeling noise rock deity that is Michael Gira — she gets eaten alive.
Essential Tracks: “Exit Plan”, “Absisto”, and “A Formal Invitation”