One of the things that was so disappointing about the recent hiatus taken by The Spill Canvas was that the break seemed to leave fans without a proper conclusion. There was no official statement from the band on their status, only a brief article from a local paper that hinted towards a dissolution. The final album before their time off was a mix of songs from recent EPs, acoustic versions of the same tracks, and little else – more of a compilation than a true record. Furthermore, it was somewhat lacking in the band’s trademark sincerity, even being titled Formalities, as if they had only released it out of businesslike necessity and not with any true artistic intent. In short, nothing about the situation was satisfying. When it was announced that they would be recording a new album, free from their major label and apparently refreshed, there was a lot of hope for a return to form. Luckily for fans, it seems as though this is the case, as Gestalt finds the band incorporating elements of their best work to create a record that documents the struggles of the past few years through honest songwriting and strong musicianship.
Shying away from the energy that fills the opening tracks of every record following Sunsets and Car Crashes, “Whiskey Dream Kathleen” seems to take a page out of the band’s debut with a downtempo pace and intimate setting. Finding beauty in the fragility of Nick Thomas’ vocals in the verses, it feels like a modern imagining of something that could have fit in on that first album. Full of poignant lyrics and well-constructed instrumentation, as well as one of the best-executed implementations of vocoder I’ve heard, this is a flawless opener. Most importantly, it marks a reserved return to the quality fans had grown to expect from The Spill Canvas. As “Chemicals” picks up the energy with its steady beat and bass line, some glorious guitar licks from Dan Ludeman propel the track forward and Thomas unleashes his powerful vocals. The short breakdown around 2:45 is brilliant, if too short. If the opener was a callback to the band’s acoustic beginnings, this one brings out the rocking feel found on No Really, I’m Fine.
First heard over two years ago via an acoustic video the band filmed in a kitchen, “Parallels and Money” is one of Gestalt‘s many highlights. Moderately straightforward in terms of structure, the song finds its greatest strength in its memorable melodies and lyrics. That said, the instrumentation is also fantastic, with each element possessing a distinctly strong part at some point in the track. Perhaps it’s my previous familiarity with the song, but this is the one that feels most like what I love and desire from The Spill Canvas. “From: San Francisco” has one of the most confessional lines of the whole record: “yeah, we don’t talk anymore, and that’s alright by me, ’cause I don’t know who you are or who you expected me to be,” quickly followed by a brief admission of the personal mistakes that fill the complementary next track. Atmospheric, personal, and moving, “To: Chicago” focuses on Thomas’ struggles with addiction and homelessness. The blunt honesty of the lyrics, well-executed structure of the song, and additional vocals from Andy Jackson (Hot Rod Circuit, Death in the Park, ex-Terrible Things) make this yet another standout.
Full of bluesy guitar parts and moving strings, “Off a Cliff” features one of the best bridges on the record. Furthermore, it has perhaps the album’s most memorable chorus, despite not being “catchy” in the way that quality’s normally discussed, instead rooting itself into ears with the power of its held out notes. “Firm Believer” follows up with another dose of quality songwriting, matching cutting commentary on fame with strong lyrics like “all this love, it don’t mean a thing when it’s just yours I want.” While rock-based “The Meds” isn’t necessarily a bad song, it pales in comparison to the powerful nature of the songs preceding it and seems to lack the honesty and sincerity that pervades the band’s best work. However, if you enjoyed “The Bone” from Formalities, you’ll probably like “The Meds” on Gestalt. While it seems to be a little more personal than the previous track, “Mariana” fails to completely restore the strength found in the opening two-thirds of the record. It does, however, offer some diversity in terms of overall sound. Full of impressive guitar licks, it has its share of powerful melodies despite what it lacks in terms of lyrical content.
“My Vicinity” is the track that might have been most at home on One Fell Swoop, in terms of the dramatic lyrical content and the overall tone of the song, from the wandering nature of the guitar part to the way the track builds through the bridge. It has a lot of the qualities that helped attract me to the band, particularly in the type of words chosen and the way they’re delivered. There’s a certain consideration taken to the way the words sound and what exactly they mean, and it’s this deliberate approach to songwriting that really draws me in, much in the same way Every Time I Die‘s Keith Buckley is able to write. Closer “Sabotage Internal” features some of the cleanest production of the album, almost reminiscent of ’90s rock in the way the chorus builds up and how some of the guitar parts fit into the texture. Simultaneously straightforward and well-planned from a structural standpoint, the track has a lot of space to expand and allow different parts to grow organically. As the vocals fade out and the piano ends the record, it does a good job of feeling complete, making up for a lack of emotion with its effective construction.
If you were a fan of The Spill Canvas at any point of their career, you will find something to love about at least one song on Gestalt. If you were a fan before Formalities and fell out of touch with what they were putting out, you will find a lot to love about Gestalt. The record finds a healthy blend of elements of all of the band’s previous work, while incorporating new atmospheric elements. While the first two-thirds of the record is somewhat stronger than the last few tracks, it could easily be argued that there’s not a bad song in the bunch. I personally approached Gestalt with high expectations and found them undoubtedly met. While I enjoyed most of the tracks on Formalities, there is a clear distinction to be drawn between the level of sincerity found there and that of the band’s earlier work. This record restores the element of sincerity through truly personal lyricism and soulful instrumentation. It was written with a purpose, and that makes all the difference. Gestalt is a return to form, and a triumphant one at that.