Album Review: Quasi – Breaking the Balls of History

[Sub Pop; 2023]

In light of Janet Weiss’ contentious split from Sleater-Kinney in 2019, it’s difficult to approach the new Quasi album as anything but a declaration of independence from what she said she had become “…a threat to where [Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker] wanted [Sleater-Kinney] to go, and who I am, and that felt bad to me.” Weiss always felt like the spark that ignited that band’s creative drive, and without her direct input, their work often felt like a shadow of its past fury. But as sad as it was to see her drift from her former bandmates, her latest album with Sam Coomes under their Quasi moniker, Breaking the Balls of History, restores her percussive velocity and allows her to pull away from any polished veneers and refocuses on the raw experimentalism and punk chaos of her earlier years making music.

Fueled by a freedom not heard since Sleater-Kinney’s 2005’s album The Woods, she reaffirms her position as one of the greatest living drummers working now. Her fills are odd and unexpected, beats coalesce and disappear, and momentum is achieved and discarded without notice. Breaking the Balls of History is Weiss at her most self-assured, and she’s having a hell of a good time. But she’s only half the equation here, as Sam Coomes provides balance to Weiss’ anarchic tempos, providing alternate rhythmic rumblings and a voice wrapped in weary revelations and caustic appraisals of the world around him. When he sings, “Fuck the whole human race, man” on acidic riposte “Back in Your Tree”, the buzzsaw synths, mutated guitar lines, and jackhammer implosions Weiss offers are enough to make you forget that it’s been 10 years since their last record.

At times sounding like a demented reimagining of 60s garage rockers ? and the Mysterians, especially in the way organ is layered and distorted throughout the album, Weiss and Coomes pour all of their personality into these songs. The first words you hear on opener “Last Long Laugh” are “I was a teenage porcupine” and soon thereafter a thunderous rupture of toms and cymbals comes barreling down on you like a runaway freight train. Electronic squiggles and garbled keys provide background texture while Coomes sings of inevitable endings and laughter in the face of death. What comes through is both the individuality of their instincts and the musical camaraderie that they share, a kind of melodic shorthand tuned to their specific wavelengths.

On tracks like “Rotten Wrock”, Weiss just beats the shit out of the drums while Coomes channels the pointed vocal melodies of Kill the Moonlight-era Spoon. Eventually, it all starts to break down, coming apart at the seams and crashing around you as splinters of instruments go whizzing past your face. “Riots & Jokes” is a bluesy psychedelic trip into an alternate reality where The Count Five and The Standells are still making records and gracing the charts. The organ seems to develop a life of its own, running amok as the band attempts to control its ravenous urges. “Gravity” is a bit more linear, less wonky in its approach to their garage rock aesthetics, while “Inbetweenness” is a gauzy bit of celestial distortion, a blurry-eyed awakening that offers far more questions than answers.

On first glance, the one-minute title track might seem like a throwaway tune, just some place they can reinforce their commitment to upending the status quo, but it winds up being an astringent credo that they take to heart. Honestly, it could have been appeared a few more times on the record (maybe an experimental version, an acoustic version, and so on), and it would have functioned wonderfully as interstitial connective tissue.

“Doomscrollers” tends toward topical themes – such as TikTok fame, anti-vaxxers, “Punisher skulls on the back of their rigs”, and virtual classrooms – and while it isn’t the most successful in divining new insight into these ideas, the song is a dynamic collision of strings, frayed guitar riffs, and mashed keys that blur into a whirlwind of honest frustration anchored by two people who just can’t be bothered to put up with people’s shit anymore.

Breaking the Balls of History is a rock record of experimental tastes and bitter sentiment. Weiss and Coomes aren’t languishing as ageing hipsters – they are tearing apart what they see as the decaying structures of the genres in which they’ve worked, adapting the forms to fit their needs and the desires of their collective impulses. This is deconstruction in process. This is necessary reclamation of sound. The music, in all its messy beauty, hits like a sack of bricks to the head. Sometimes the underdog overcomes. Sometimes the losers do win. And sometimes you get to hear two musicians finally release the album they’ve been wanting to make for a very long time. And for now, that’s more than enough to keep me coming back to revel in the tumultuous consequences of Quasi’s ramshackle rock shenanigans.