[Sargent House; 2013]

The spiderwebs of songs that Oxford, England’s This Town Needs Guns have espoused for the last several years have been, to say the least, unfashionable. Marrying a post-Kinsella take on 90s emo to a truly pornographic brand of math rock, they lack well, the hip signifiers that often send a band to the headlines of all your favorite blogs. But never fear, 2013 doesn’t send these Brits ditching their chops and scrambling for relevance like many of their fellow travelers–no, instead they’ve replaced their lead singer and bass player and written a concept album about the end of the Mayan calendar.

A drum machine false start kicks off “Cat Fantastic” and Tim Collis’ cascading fingerpicked guitarlines collide with a voice slightly sweeter than longtime followers of This Town Need Guns might expect. A glance at the personnel list will confirm the 2011 departure of the reedy voiced Stuart Smith from the band’s ranks and the recent addition of former Pennines singer Henry Tremain to fill Smith’s shoes and take over on bass playing duties. It’s a move that stymies the ever-present smirk from the band’s early years. Ridiculous track titles and Smith’s lilting vocals are excised entirely. It’s a dourer affair entirely with that whole apocalypse business hanging over the proceedings and its aided further by the comparatively syrupy timbre of Tremain’s voice. When he launches into the opening platitudes of “Cat Fantastic,” Tremain is all stright faced and downcast. Where Smith’s nasally pull might have lent a bit of levity, Cabbott lends a grave seriousness.

No longer are This Town Needs Guns’ compositions tangled webs that take a musician to untangle. With the addition of Tremain, Collis and his brother Chris ditch some of the sterility brought about by their technical fireworks. Tim’s guitar lines provide dreamy tonal backdrops for Tremain to set forth his vocal acrobatics. “Havoc In The Forum,” which might be the most true to This Town Needs Guns’ earlier material, spins a helium Tremain through the tenuous rumble of rolling toms and incomprehensibly dizzing guitar licks. Such is the, This Town Needs Guns way. The instrumentals become so illegible in their technical proficiency that they start to function as pseudo-impressionist backdrops for the pointed coos of their boyish vocalists.

All that’s well and good, but if such description sounds rather bombastic and maximalist, it’s because, well, it is. For the large majority of their studio output, Tim’s guitar parts and Chris’ stubborn refusal to lock into a stereotypical groove on percussion leads these tracks a nauseating sway. But they’re able to offset this here–to make sure it doesn’t stray too far of the rails–with the inclusion of “2 Birds, 1 Stone, and an Empty Stomach,” which surrounds Tremain’s choir boy falsetto with a few sparse guitar strums before exploding back into the characteristic virtuosity. It’s a brief respite on a record bursting replete with Adderall aided fingerpicking, but a respite that makes explicit This Town Needs Guns’ exquisite command of the dynamics of post-Kinsella emo.

With only one other full-length studio album in their eight years of existense, it feels strange to talk about as some sort of definitive statement on what This Town Needs Guns’ work to date means or anything like that. But with the astounding emotive power of tracks like “Havoc In The Forum” and their contrast with the downer strains of “2 Birds…,” This Town Needs Guns have set all cards on the table. With a new singer in tow, the Collis brothers display the intimate knowledge of their instruments, which made This Town Needs Guns so instantly engaging on past records, and demonstrate the ability to pull back from such virtuosity and allow the songwriting itself to shine. Past This Town Needs Guns efforts have been intriguing in spite of their often garish reliance on math rock tropes, but with they’ve found this balance that allows them to transcend genre pigeonholing. proves, in its own way, This Town Needs Guns’ legitimacy as a band that writes emotionally affecting songs instead of merely a group of quirky instrumentalists with an above average command of their form. They still may not make an incredibly fashionable brand of music, but this new record shows that they’re pretty great at it.

Grade: 73%