It's hard to call whatever Whatever Brains does a departure, to feign surprise when a band whose hallmark is restlessness changes direction again—even if they do it twice in one release, as they've done for the new double EP, SSR-63/SSR-64.
True, the Raleigh group spent an uncharacteristically long time (a whole 18 months!) between its last release and this one. And yes, a double EP seems like a gimmick. And sure, neither of those EPs—a single-song "rock opera" and a four-track, almost-pop adventure—sound like the albums that preceded them. But it feels natural for Whatever Brains.
What is surprising, though, is that these two EPs, simply named for their Sorry State Records catalog numbers, are finally earning wider attention for the local iconoclasts, despite the band's general aversion to publicity. Whatever Brains have mostly avoided the trappings of contemporary indie rock careerism, never posing for photos or hiring publicists. They tour beyond the Triangle only occasionally. But after more than five years of mostly area and underground acclaim, Whatever Brains premiered SSR-64's seven-minute lurch "NY Dodger" at the Vice-run music site Noisey and shared a handful of tour dates with Detroit's Protomartyr and New York's PC Worship.
This apparent success seems inevitable. Whatever Brains have consistently kicked against the edges of whatever mold they've made. After early releases framed by lo-fi scuzz and punk roots, the band veered toward psych-rock, post-punk and electronic bedlam. They've even dabbled in country and hip-hop. For all those detours, they have always made room for big hooks. They've unapologetically built a model where the music matters most and where the music could be anything.
To that end, SSR-63's single 22-minute track, "///////," is Whatever Brains' most varied moment since their first self-titled LP. The song tells the story of a Russian family living in Siberian isolation. As it zigs and zags from needling post-punk into pummeling synth-punk, from lo-fi country to spacious psych throb, "///////" never loses momentum. The accomplishment is as much in the transitions between the parts as in the parts themselves.
Despite the audacity, SSR-63 is actually more comparable to Whatever Brains' past than SSR-64, which continues the band's push from guitar-based songs and toward synthesizers, near-industrial low-end and playful dissonance. "Conficker" and "UVOD" each clock in at less than four minutes. They borrow shades of cult-famous synth rockers like Wall of Voodoo or The Faint and plain famous ones like Nine Inch Nails. Near the beginning of "Conficker," for instance, frontman Rich Ivey moans, Reznor-like, "Don't get cut." Here, the Brains upset patches of dense bass with passages of tiny melodies, like pranksters in a warzone. In "UVOD," they embrace a straightforward dance groove, bridging the edge of New Wave with the bombast of pure pop.
The longer cuts, "STOXX (or Athletics)" and "NY Dodger," stretch for more than six minutes, offering diversions between the EP's condensed, hooky moments. "STOXX" builds from a dead-eyed drone to climax twice with surges of screaming synths and avalanching percussion. "NY Dodger" reaches for a crescendo of gristle and glitter, with drums and electronics battling keyboards that sparkle.
By now, few wells of influence Whatever Brains haven't dipped their toes into remain. They seem to have fully absorbed their extensive catalog of source material, recombining and reconfiguring those sounds to new ends. That's not surprising, but at this double EP's strange new heights, it can feel that way.