No Age‘s setup might seem restrictive, but it’s also been their most freeing quality. While the guitar-and-drum setup is not exclusively theirs, for more than a decade Dean Spunt and Randy Randall have made experimental noise rock that immediately bears their stamp. The secret to their best work has been a penchant for tinkering and hooks that lets songs hit and linger like a static shock. Goons Be Gone, their latest, and second for Drag City, isn’t a top-tier No Age album, but its strongest moments show how well they’ve maintained their sound without it becoming worn.
The best songs here are the poppiest ones, and they’re not shy about it either. Randall holds down “Guitar Dance” with jaunty power chord riffage, allowing noisier elements to come through during the chorus as Spunt operates as drummer and rally-crier. Also great is “Turned To String”, which feels like a classic No Age song with its blistering pace and heavy mind, most notable on a bridge that makes great usage of Spunt’s vocals. It’s hard to think of any contemporaries who sound quite like he does, and his projecting style is a characteristic that’s as vital to this band as any other defining quality.
Of course, how a band uses their traits is more important than the traits themselves. Occasionally, Goons Be Gone is brought down by certain elements not being used to their full capability. Other times, the toying with sound can feel arbitrary or distracting. Opener “Sandalwood” jumps right into a fast-paced riff with compelling layering of guitar tones, but Spunt sounds stuck in autopilot vocally. A similar issue strikes the deliberately forlorn “Smoothie”, where Spunt comes off as disaffected but not very engaging as he dejectedly croons about a lost tambourine.
The followup interlude “Working Stiff Takes A Break” has some choppy synth sounds and Spunt shouting phrases like cheer slogans; its weirdness would work a lot better if it served as any kind of a bridge between “Smoothie” and “War Dance”. Later comes “Toes In The Water”, a sound collage that layers clean piano over noisy loops before some guitar chords and other sonic elements pile in; at certain moments, it’s quite lovely, but its cumulative effect doesn’t pan out.
Although there are hiccups, No Age haven’t lost touch with their more experimental side. Another highlight is “Feeler”, which feeds off noise lent from the end of “Sandalwood”, and Spunt gets in one of his catchiest hooks, asking someone if they’d like to “Board onto the rhythm of my astral plane,” while Randall contributes one of his best performances with a solo that could hold down a track all on its own.
The noodling can make songs victims of their creators’ brainstorming, and some energy-filled numbers, like closer “Agitating Moss”, sustain themselves mostly off energy alone, but lack the creativity to really make things special. Goons Be Gone is nothing particularly new for them, but when No Age balance their flavors of weirdness with the wildness, it still hits the right marks.