On Trash Generator, the Sacramento trio Tera Melos builds on its prodigious mix of post-hardcore and prog, reining-in the chops in service of catchy, harmonically rich songs.
Prog rock still exerts a profound influence on popular music—perhaps even more so now than in its 1970s heyday. The genre’s modern descendants may not necessarily surround themselves with stacks of keyboards, or emulate the Gandalf-esque fashion sense of Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. But you can rest assured that there’s prog DNA lurking within vital developments across a slew of contemporary rock styles. And while prog’s baroque extravagance once clashed with punk ethics and funk grooves, those divisions fell away decades ago, particularly in the post-hardcore universe that gave us Tera Melos.
When Tera Melos started out in the mid-2000s, the Sacramento trio (then a quartet) took a kitchen-sink approach to riffs and time changes that owed no small debt to the tornado-like, ultra-busy style pioneered by hometown predecessors Hella (the outfit that first put Death Grips drummer Zach Hill on the map). But even as Tera Melos grew more adept at cramming their music with whiplash-inducing twists and turns, they simultaneously shifted towards a bigger-picture view of songwriting. On 2013’s X’ed Out, Tera Melos struck a balance between complexity and songcraft that almost always eludes technical bands. X’ed Out also showcased frontman/guitarist Nick Reinhart’s increasing command of melody and hooks. Reinhart, bassist Nathan Latona, and drummer John Clardy had gotten so adept at shoehorning their chops into pop song structures that they were starting to sound more like, say, the Police and Pinback than the experimental/math/heavy/post-hardcore company they kept.
Trash Generator, the follow-up to X’ed Out, continues down the same road, with a guest appearance by Pinback’s Rob Crow for good measure. Much like last time, the new material sees Tera Melos reining-in their prodigious chops in service of tunes that function pretty much as traditional songs. On “Your Friends,” no amount of stutter-stops, extra beats, or audacious drum fills can derail the swaggering groove the band sustains throughout the verse-chorus sections. The song even gives us a glimpse of what it would sound like if the Police’s Andy Summers and Sting were reincarnated as a single person who plays chunky, metallic riffs. Reinhart at once nods to Summers’ watery echo and Sting’s sing-speak phrasing circa Regatta de Blanc.
On “Don’t Say I Know,” Reinhart smoothes a jerking, oddly metered guitar riff out so that the guitarwork itself becomes the song’s hook alongside his already-catchy falsetto vocal, which falls somewhere between Devo, the Beach Boys, and Enon. When Latona thickens his bassline to include deep chords, the effect is dramatic and powerful in a way that Tera Melos’ older material just didn’t leave room for. On the instrumental “GR30A11,” somber piano chords brush up against patches of static fuzz, strewn about like dust bunnies, while Latona noodles on the bass as if playing to an entirely different track.
A sedate, presumably lighthearted attempt at Cecil Taylor’s brand of jazz chaos, “GR30A11” certainly cleanses the pallette with a respite from the album’s assertive, high-energy mood. But “GR30A11,” while fun, also highlights how Tera Melos aren’t arriving at new expressions quite as assuredly as they did on X’ed Out. That’s not to say Trash Generator doesn’t break some new ground for Tera Melos: The horns on “A Universal Gonk” create a smoky atmosphere, and on the whole, the album is the band’s catchiest and most harmonically rich by far. But in its especially open moments—the serene but short-lived intro to “Super Fx,” for example—Trash Generator suggests that Tera Melos would flourish even more if they threw themselves into the ambient end of the pool, which they’ve only stuck their toes in.