Album review: Terry Malts – "Killing Time"

Taking the garage punk aesthetic to unexpected places and mixing it with an early rock and roll sensibility for melodic pop hooks, Terry Malts succeeds in making fun, catchy noise with the occasional biting social commentary. It’s all apropos of punk rock.

The first thing that immediately struck me is how much the singer’s voice sounds like that of Joey Ramone’s, and I should apologize because once you start to hear it that way it will be impossible to hear it any other way. The comparison was something that my mind would not let go. Uncomplicated songs with straightforward structures are not something that the Ramones invented, but Terry Malts takes the form and sound — as an archetype — and runs with it. The songs on “Killing Time” not only have more lyrical depth, combined with variety in the tempo and rhythm department, but are also given room to breathe. The band allows each track to develop in its own way by either cutting back and building up the dynamic again or with the addition of a squealing, messy guitar solo. Perhaps a better idea of their sound would be to place it in terms of the noisy garage punk bands Male Bonding or Dum Dum Girls.

Terry Malts buzzes with a guitar tone that seems to have been taken directly from Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and it’s that haze from which the entire album takes its tone – bass heavy, and at times overridden with feedback and echoed vocals. The buzzed out “Not Far From It” is a perfect example of this sound. With “I’m Neurotic,” the droning, repetitive and spacious grinding guitar riff pervades, though the simple, pared down lyrics are more the focus on this track. Repeated statements of “I’m neurotic, that’s what she says, I won’t let it go to my head. Maybe she’s right” not only works to highlight the fact that he is, in fact, neurotic, but therefore that “she” is right. Efforts specifically directed towards preventing it from going to his head are only doing the opposite. The music reflects the neurosis that commandeers all attention and focus.

“Nauseous” picks up the pace significantly. It’s far more catchy with a quick tempo, and perhaps even borders on “sing-along” inspiring with the hook “na-na-na-na-nauseous”. This is all combined with an ability for capturing the aura of early hard-core punk like Black Flag, mixed with a bit of the early rock and roll-influenced fun. Those two characteristics seem, on the surface, to be diametrically opposed, and I can’t think of how they could be working together — but according to Terry Malts they can, and do on this track. By placing the lighthearted melody of the vocals against support from heavy, bass-driven, guitar noise that is thrashing about in the background they manage to make work something that would seem like an option in the first place.

Terry Malts - "Killing Time"
Terry Malts - "Killing Time"

A doo-wop, early rock and roll sound also pervades “No Good For You”. If you could imagine the guitars being a little cleaner, and putting the vocals up front more, then I think this song would easily find a place for itself on the Top 40 back in the late 1950s. Not to beat the Ramones references into the ground, but it seems like this is what they were trying to conjure from themselves when they worked with Phil Spector. Instead, they more or less ended up turning out the same music that they had been all along, which is certainly not a bad thing.

Some of the lyrics on “Killing Time” push the boundaries with plainspoken, forthright social commentaries. The track “Not a Christian” is at once a slam to Christianity with lyrics such as “A prayer is empty air and no one’s listening” and a statement of personal beliefs with “There is life and there is death, I live my life, I do my best”. It’s over almost as fast as it began with no room left for ruminations or arguments.  Similarly, in the biting social commentary category, is “Mall Dreams”, a diatribe against modern consumerist culture. When the line “Who are you when all you do is consume?” is sung the conviction of the statement isn’t made any less contemptuous by the bouncing rhythm and uptempo character of the song. It happens to be a happy track on the surface but the lyrics beg for deeper inspection.

“No Big Deal” lyrically lands more on the personal side of things, sarcastically trying to cope with a break up. “No big deal, that was just my heart you ripped out” – sings a sullen voice that seems to be accepting of his fate while still managing to put his full pain on display. The squeal of uncontrollable feedback also permeates this track, the guitarist seemingly unable to hold it back, and unwilling to turn it down.

Squarely in-line with punk ethos is “Can’t Tell No One”, a straightforward rocker with rapid fire vocals. “People try to tell me what they think is right for me….but I won’t listen to them, won’t take their advice, I really wouldn’t have it any other fuckin’ way” is the most punk-rock line on the album. The rigid, uncompromising raising of the middle finger directly into the face of everyone within shouting distance serves as a very nice contrast to a lot of the other songs on “Killing Time” that are more obviously making use of the old school rock and roll influence.

The album really is about balancing those two extremes: the birth of rock with the noise and attitude of various strands of punk — from the garages, basements and dingy clubs across the country.

[audio:|titles=Where Is The Weekend] [audio:|titles=No Good For You]