Album Review: The C.I.A. – Surgery Channel

[In The Red; 2023]

It can be daunting to navigate the discography of Ty Segall – the man pumps out a new project or release at an astounding rate, akin to the frequency The Beatles did back in the 60s. Since debuting in 2008, Segall hasn’t gone a year without putting something to tape for us to consume, and his musical circle continues to grow and encompasses copious amounts of talent like Mikal Cronin, Shannon Lay, and Emily Rose Epstein. And let’s not forget all of his bands like the Ty Segall Band, The Muggers, Fuzz, The Sleeper Band, GØGGS, Wasted Shirt, and Broken Bat.

Pre-pandemic, 2018 to be precise, Segall paired with his wife Denée Segall and frequent collaborator Emmett Kelly for their debut as The C.I.A., an off-kilter noise-punk trio who released a self-titled record quietly at the end of the year. Easily overlooked, considering Ty released six albums in 2018, the album marked a tonal shift from the scuzzy garage rock he’s been peddling for the last 15 years. Denée takes lead vocal responsibility in the band and offers a new dimension to her husband’s typical shredding.

The trio returns in 2023 with their sophomore effort Surgery Channel and it picks up right where their debut left off, marking a welcome return to the chaotic for Ty who spent his last two outings under his own name toying with different genres. 2021’s Harmonizer veered into more electronic and synthy atmospheres, while last year’s subdued Hello, Hi was his latest attempt at a “folk” album, a quieter affair that recalled 2014’s aptly titled Sleeper.

Another factor that jumps out is Denée Segall’s handling the of the vocal responsibilities, with her shrieks and caterwauls hearkening back to the primal days of Allison Mosshart in the Kills with the swagger of Karen O circa Fever to Tell. She’s popped up sporadically in her husband’s solo outings, but her as the focal point of the C.I.A. gives the project a bit more pizazz.

The grungy lead single “Impersonator” throbs with attitude as Denée gyrates her vocals up and down all while her husband grinds in unison with Kelly’s machine gun drumming. The unit functions well, playing off each other’s strong points succinctly. The male Segall’s guitar work is impeccable as always, and a welcome return given how absent it’s been in recent years, proving once again that he can navigate the instrument to perfection still.

Surgery Channel seems to rely heavily on this schematic, incorporating that sinister sound of “Impersonator” all over the record. A highlight of this approach is “Bubble”, though this one sparks more of a John Carpenter 70s grit, with dark tones akin to Assault on Precinct 13.

The dual title tracks only share a title in common as both are wildly opposite, with “Surgery Channel Pt 1” doubling down on that post-punk blueprint, while “Pt 2” veers into sampling and strained guitars from Ty. For him, this probably feels like a safer space than on Hello, Hi as this is territory he knows all too well. He toys with his guitar like Sonic Youth did in their early days, testing its durability while keeping pace with Kelly’s pattering sticks on “You Can Be Here”.

“Inhale Exhale” feels ripped from an unearthed box of krautrock 45s from the basement of Fuzz Club, with Denee’s hair-raising screech paying homage to those who came before her while still sounding unique. After a brief introduction, the triumvirate set the stage with the post-punk tinged “Better” and rapid fire lyrics by Denée, who dominates the track like she does the front cover.

With a twisted approach to a tried sound, The C.I.A. expand on their declarations of their debut, enhancing every note, every string, every crash, and a lot of it comes from how well the three synchronize their unique sounds. This may be the most energized Ty Segall has sounded since Manipulator, and that can mostly be attributed to his wife and her piercing presence.