When members of the Melvins (Buzz Osborne, Dale Crover), At the Drive-In (Omar Rodríguez-López), and Le Butcherettes (Teri Gender Bender) announced plans last fall to unite and form Crystal Fairy, it was safe to bet the music would be bold, thoughtful, and unapologetic. The band’s self-titled debut has each of these characteristics, but it’s also an artsy and dramatic record that has more to offer with each listen.
There’s a lot to unpack with this album. Its 11 tracks are complex, built of mood and narrative that don’t adhere to traditional genre rules. The opening track, “Chiseler”, delves into metal with its rough, driving riff without committing to the double bass pedal or tremolo picking. “Secret Agent Rat” and “Vampire X-Mas” are also metal trending, with the first providing the album’s hardest riff (and only all-Spanish track) while the second quickly dilutes after its strong beginning. The hardcore and punk roots of the band members’ past projects are similarly evident. Songs like “Drugs on the Bus” and “Moth Tongue” are heavy, with Crover’s steady drumming and Rodríguez-López’s bass progressions escalating the tension that builds from a general foreboding tone.
Crystal Fairy is not a hopeful or happy album. Its strength comes from the paranoia and anxiety of Gender Bender’s lyrics and felt in the dark mood of the melodies. The title track introduces a catchy groove that fits well with the singer’s vocal tone and carries the song through. Described by Gender Bender as the manifestation of a panic attack, “Crystal Fairy” is fitting for the band to peg its name and album title on. Though it has hints of metal, punk, sludge rock, psychedelia, and even pop, “Crystal Fairy” stays true to the band’s collective history by selectively applying the musical elements that serve it best. “Necklace of Divorce” is similar, with its tempo and vocal structure fluctuating as its speedy, confident introduction gives way to a contemplative transcendence that leaves the rest of the song simmering.
For all the instrumental integrity present on Crystal Fairy, it would be dishonest to continue weighing the album without addressing the spotlight on Gender Bender. The focus on Gender Bender’s voice and lyrics is well deserved, and she doesn’t dawdle the opportunity away. As she’s shown from years of touring and recording with Le Butcherettes, her voice is acrobatic, easily capable of sounding forceful, sultry, punishing, coy, and any other attitude that a song requires. Having Gender Bender aboard is like having a vast array of vocalists on call, each capable of delivering their lines on point with power to spare, regardless of genre.
As Osborne explained in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Gender Bender is also responsible for most of the album’s lyrics. Like Crystal Fairy’s sound, the lyrical themes borrow from traditions of established genres like metal and psychedelia but can’t be cleanly categorized. From the psychiatric episode described in “Crystal Fairy” to the narrator’s struggle to adapt to harsh domestic circumstances in “Moth Tongue” and the fight for general survival in “Chiseler”, the album confronts human experiences in a grandiose fashion that buys in to the idea that every day is a battle and every individual a solider. But while some soldiers fight for shared causes, Crystal Fairy join the punk and metal troops in recognizing that the biggest fights are those that one confronts alone. It’s a lonely world, and if Gender Bender’s lyrics occasionally deviate from that message as in “Drugs on the Bus” and “Vampire X-Mas” to sink into fantasy, Osborne, Crover, and Rodríguez-López remain to provide the album’s persistent, foreboding melodies.
Though there are near misses on Crystal Fairy (like the riffs that don’t quite reach heavy metal territory in “Secret Agent Rat” or the teeth-gritting introduction of “Under Trouble” that does more to incite annoyance than apprehension), the album succeeds far more than it falls short. If Crystal Fairy was as easy for the band to create as they claimed, this album will hopefully be their first of many.
Essential Tracks: “Chiseler”, “Drugs on the Bus”, and “Secret Agent Rat”