What a radical transformation New York City's Guerilla Toss have undergone over the last decade. Their output from 2013-2014 reveled in electro-punk chaos and No Wave mania, with plenty of tough grooves and unhinged shrieks from frontwoman Kassie Carlson. Albums such as Kicked Back Into the Crypt and Gay Disco merged early Gang of Four's angular funk and Six Finger Satellite's whiplash clangor with nastily exhilarating results.
The ensuing years have seen Guerilla Toss gradually lessen their abrasive qualities and drift toward something more welcoming. The transition began with 2015's Flood Dosed, on which Carlson relents on the panic-stricken delivery as the music becomes less dense and more spacious while continuing to be weirdly danceable. Take “Ritual in Light,” an incredible, five-dimensional funk track that would tie the Contortions in knots. While on this record and follow-ups such as Eraser Stargazer and GT Ultra Guerilla Toss moved toward greater accessibility, in no way did they bland out. Guerilla Toss may have reined in their spazziness, but they were still too rhythmically skewed and tonally wild to pass for a conventional dance or rock outfit.
On 2018's Twisted Crystal, GT grew ever more comfortable into their new life as a well-oiled pleasure machine. The sound is tantalizingly inorganic and just off enough to elude accusations of basicness. Twisted Crystal upgraded new-wave mannerisms to 21st-century specs with more robust dance beats and glossier synths. Songs such as “Green Apple” revealed Guerilla Toss's more sophisticated approach to melody. On 2019's What Would the Odd Do? GT sound eager to weird up the club, but not too radically. The tones are neon-bright and as sparkly as a coke-caked mirror. They manage a deft balance between accessibility and quirkiness in their gripping, maximalist electronic rock.
With their 2020 Sub Pop debut, the “Human Girl”/“Own Zone” 7-inch, Guerilla Toss definitively put their wild youth to bed. The A-side is buoyant electro pop with clever rhythmic change-ups and muted, Paisley Park synth sheen. In this sincere stab for radio play, Carlson sounds unrecognizable from her earlier self. The B-side is a herky-jerky new-wave throwback with nervy, Suburban Lawns-like energy.
Which brings us to Famously Alive, which was created by Carlson, guitarist Arian Shafiee, and multi-instrumentalist Peter Negroponte in the Catskills during the pandemic. For Carlson, this global health crisis provided an opportune lemons-into-lemonade scenario. The isolation resulting from Covid-19's early stages enabled her, she says in a press release, to “get comfortable inside my own body. My peace of mind came out of being thrust into the deepest shit. This album is all about being happy, being alive, strength. It's meant to inspire people.” That Carlson overcame an opiate addiction during this time further lends a vindicating life force to Famously Alive.
Humans in 2022 could all use more inspiration, and GT start doling it out from track 1, “Cannibal Capital.” The song begins in jarring chaos and then a tight, bass-laden groove slithers out of the morass. Carlson sings with a rare smoothness and sweetness, “Drained my economy, Ecstasy/I'm social with enemies and it takes the best of me/Tangible fanatic my energy memory/That cannibal capital makes everything sensory.” The music is stripped-down and stealthy, then inflates into a momentous crescendo, replete with bulging guitar blare. The title track presents a total adrenaline rush through double-time beats that recall Hüsker Dü's in “You're a Soldier,” surging guitar, and Carlson's extended vowels, which add poignancy to the self-esteem-inducing lyrics. Just like we couldn't expect Nick Cave to carry on with the extreme vocal-cord damage from his Birthday Party days, it's not fair to want Carlson to shred her larynx forever in Guerilla Toss. She took voice lessons during the recording of Famously Alive, and it shows.
As the album progresses, GT increasingly manifest a will to go POP with an unabashed glossiness that may shock fans from their early days as a Boston-based quintet who recorded for underground labels such as NNA Tapes and Feeding Tube. This impulse reaches its nadir in “I Got Spirit” and “Heathen in Me.” With timbres redolent of commercial '80s synth-pop, melodies that smack of empty triumphalism, and that cursed Auto-Tune, these songs descend into cheesiness, muting the message of self-empowerment in the former.
By contrast, Famously Alive is best on songs that retain GT's knack for unusual tones. “Happy Me” shines with late-period-Kraftwerk synth arpeggios, fat blocks of bass synth, and metallic FX'd vox while affirmatively answering the question, can robots have emotions? The shuddering funk-dub of “Pyramid Humm” rides a bulbous bass figure that morphs into a blubbery purr and wobble. Carlson's voice soars with sugar-spun ethereality, signifying her metamorphosis into a chart-bound diva. The propulsive and swift electro pop of “Wild Fantasy” evokes the feeling of effortlessly leaving Earth's orbit. It's a massive swirl of euphoria, symbolizing Carlson's ascent to a better mind state. Her band mates have inflated their maximal and sugary instincts to represent this positive change. If that development irks Guerilla Toss's long-time fans, then it's a small price to pay for psychic peace.