Grace Under Pressure
Cold Specks titled their album after a scientific term for the mind’s capacity to form new connections. Neuroplasticity allows us to learn. While this might sound too uplifting for an album marked by tension and conflict, it may be a good fit. After all, this knowledge of neurons is being utilized by the scientific community to treat disorders of the mind.
Al Spx created her Cold Specks moniker in an effort to distinguish her creative work from her personal life. Hailing from Toronto, she made a big splash with her 2012 debut, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion. The sparse collection of soul folk showcased a voice like a wrecking ball that leaned on a gothic aesthetic. Spx has since fallen into the company of critical darlings and perhaps found her greatest ally in Swans. Michael Gira even appears on the record in a few instances to inflect the songs with his eerie lower register.
Altogether, this sophomore effort is more progressive and discordant than Expulsion. It takes bigger risks and reaps bigger rewards when the experimentation comes together. Spx is backed by a different band that is more courageous in their instrumentation, unafraid to complicate what might have been straight forward arrangements. Perhaps the most pronounced features are big drums and jazzy trumpet, seen best on “A Season of Doubt,” a song that conjures the New Orleans mystique.
Cold Specks showcase a strong unity of vision here, but not all songs fit the mold. “Let Loose The Dogs” offers a nice change of pace as an upbeat number. “Bodies at Bay” is probably the catchiest and most universal song, but even here, the shifting chorus tempo signals that this album isn’t radio fodder. These songs offer a welcome reprieve on Neuroplasticity, an album with a strong mark of darkness.
Ultimately, Spx’s position is that there can be grace under pressure, even while things are falling apart. There is conflict and we can meet it with elegance. The album’s opener, “A Broken Memory” is the tone-setter, combining existential dread with a certain peacefulness. The mantra-like organ is at once full of clarity and troublingly ominous. Then a lyric mirrors this feeling, “All is calm, nothing is right.”