I want to talk about Cymbals Eat Guitars.
Cymbals Eat Guitars is the perfect band to me. And it saddens me that they’re severely under-appreciated, especially because their music doesn’t strike me as divisive in any obvious ways. CEG songs are dense but simultaneously inviting: whether it’s the driving drums that get your head banging or the fuzzy-yet-catchy guitar riffs. But you’ll never feel like you got the whole picture after just a listen or two. This is largely due to Joseph D’Agostino’s twisting poetry, which can be delivered wistfully or aggressively, depending on the song. Naked truths are wound together with imagery from D’Agostino’s childhood and candid introspection, always stated with elegance and an air of mystique.
There are two songs in particular that illustrate the complexities of Cymbals Eat Guitars: “Beam” from 2016’s Pretty Years and “XR” from 2014’s LOSE. There are a lot of similarities between these tracks. These aren’t the hits. These are fast-paced hard rock songs with virtually no pop sensibilities. Both find D’Agostino’s voice more alien than ever. But beneath each song’s hard exterior, there are raw glimpses of Joseph D’Agostino’s struggles.
“Beam” sees D’Agostino with a grim outlook on life, acknowledging his flaws and ready for the consequences:
“Beam me up to Jesus
Beam me up to Jesus, I’m ready”
Some dark humor about his presumed fate:
“Saying ‘hey’ to Satan
He’s a dog in the yard on Morningstar
Half a buttered bagel
That I slip under the fence as an offering
Hot but his breath is freezing
And all I am is guilty”
And the brutally honest set of lines:
“Weary of fake epiphanies
Not the man that I had hoped
No one knows but me”
It’s a song that takes place entirely in D’Agostino’s head. Both the conflict and acceptance are internal, which makes it infinitely harder to express in a way that can make sense to another person. The conclusion isn’t fully formed, but that’s what makes it so human.
I didn’t understand “XR” for almost two years. It wasn’t until I really sat down with the lyrics that I could begin understand its full depth. I knew that D’Agostino’s best friend, Benjamin High, had died unexpectedly and LOSE was partially about his passing, but I hadn’t connected the dots specifically to “XR”. It’s easy to misunderstand the song: the vocals are gruff and distorted in the middle of the mix; it’s not a clear-cut emotional song. But D’Agostino’s memories of High and how his death haunts him are devastating:
“Here I am again at Ben’s MySpace grave
And then out of nowhere
The smell of his basement”
Our alternate history
The songs we never wrote
They float above and below me
Keepsake tinnitus shrieks me to sleep
Each frequency’s a memory of some
Show we attended”
“Wanna wake up wanting to listen to records
But those old feelings elude me”
I could quote literally any line of “XR” and it would convey a mountain of human pain. It’s an addicting song because of how much is packed into it, I keep coming back because I want to keep learning (and screaming “IT’S EMERGEN-C”). The subject matter of “XR” isn’t uplifting, but it is delivered with such heart that it’s enthralling. And that’s what is the biggest selling point of Cymbals Eat Guitars: heart. D’Agostino throws himself full force into every vocal performance. Difficult feelings are delivered loudly with desperation. Tracks quickly explode, rising and falling with D’Agostino’s wails, while never idling. It’s hard to multitask while listening to Cymbals Eat Guitars because they’re experts at creating worlds to lose yourself in. There’s never a note nor a word wasted.
Most Cymbals Eat Guitars songs are not 80-miles-per-hour (not quite 100) emotional tirades like “Beam” or “XR”. But I think that by highlighting the counterintuitive (to me, at least) detail in these tracks, it illustrates how rewarding this band can be. They are one of the most creative rock bands out there, with plenty of varying tempos, weird turns, and “I didn’t know sugary synths would sound so good there” moments blended with purposeful guitar rock. And the glue that holds it all together is the collection of stories that we’re luckily invited to witness, over and over and over.