Ganser does not sound like a band that is looking to be included on the next algorithmically-generated chill indie “rock” playlist. The latest from the Chicago group, Just Look at That Sky, brings back some of the traits that I feel have been missing from rock music for awhile: menace, danger, and a desire to stand out and provoke instead of blending in with the crowd. This is music that demands attention, and it’s the most visceral and thrilling rock album I’ve heard in 2020.
The band’s sound has a way of capturing the current tumultuous environment we all find ourselves in: the grinding noise from the guitars and frantic rhythms create a chaotic, anxious mood; everything feels like it’s on the verge of falling apart at any time. This style is indebted to some clear influences that the band own up to themselves, like Sonic Youth and The Jesus Lizard, but Ganser is never in anyone’s shadow because of a distinct point of view that comes from its two vocalists, Nadia Garofalo and Alicia Gaines.
On the third track, “Projector,” Garofalo meets the frenetic sound with a sarcastic, withering delivery, speak-singing lyrics that critique pseudo-intellectuals who mask hopeless nihilism behind a lot of big words and ideas (fittingly, the video features her giving a mock Ted Talk). At least that’s how it seems on the surface, but with Ganser, everything is more complex than it first appears. The song also invites the reading that this is a self-critique, a realization that even good, smart people have days where they feel like nothing matters and so they distract themselves with heady subjects and conversations. While it’s easy — especially now — to make music that dunks on people and gives its audience a sense of intellectual superiority, Just Look at That Sky does something more difficult and worthwhile. Rather than just observe “hey, here are some shitty people and things happening, doesn’t this suck,” the band examines the emotions and anxieties that come from living in crazy times, including the darker feelings some listeners may not want to think about.
Gaines has a powerful voice that echoes around in space, making her suited for the band’s slower and more emotive songs. “Emergency Equipment and Exits” is built around her own bass line and its repeated lyric, “it’s a long way down,” conveys a state of mental precarity, like we’re all internally teetering on the edge of a cliff. “Shadowcasting” is constructed similarly, with words about being unsatisfied and alienated — “lost and never found.” The band’s songs are intentionally ambiguous, with brief and vague lyrics that allow this kind of interpretation, which is a refreshing departure from music that wants to tell you how to feel. This is a why Just Look at That Sky, in addition to kicking ass on a basic musical level, feels more thoughtful and nuanced than just about any other album I’ve heard this year. Nothing the band does feels easy or simple and all of its intense emotions are earned.
With some groups that have two singers, it feels almost like you’re hearing two different bands depending on who is fronting which song. Ganser pulls off the balancing act where the singers are distinct, but their differences in style bring out a wider range of moods that are still part of one unified concept. Garofalo and Gaines are each articulating a different facet of the human experience, and in concert, they capture the complicated and occasionally contradictory feelings people have while surrounded by illogical chaos.