It’s just not in Doug Martsch’s nature to do things on a small scale. On their eighth album, and their first since 2009’s There Is No Enemy, Built To Spill announce their return with an aural big bang. A big, wavering guitar chord just under a minute and a half into opener ‘All Our Songs’ seems to mark the album’s true beginning; the cosmic, epic sound that Built To Spill can muster like no-one else. “And I found a place/ Where I know I’ll always be tethered/And I knew when I woke up/ Rock’n’roll will be here forever” is a comforting earthly concern amidst Doug Martsch’s more existential meanderings, paraphrasing ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)’ and kicking off an album that frequently courts the dense guitar wrangling of Crazy Horse. The song’s coda, then, is simply a big, pummelling, shit-kicking statement: Built To Spill are back.
The album is littered with references to space, much like Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde-era Pixies, but where Frank Black’s wishful travelogues seem like awestruck odes to the cosmos and its inhabitants, Martsch’s explorations are deeply personal and introspective (as Built To Spill’s album’s tend to be); inner space explored from the greatest of thematic distances. He has always had a knack for the juxtaposition of themes – at times achingly tragic, often esoteric, yet always life-affirming in the execution. ‘Living Zoo’ seems to take its guitar cue from M.I.A’s ‘Paper Planes’, a song the band were fond of covering live, gradually accelerating from the intro to its stratospheric “On the way to Mars/ We can reminisce” and becoming grungier as it approaches its destination. Conversely, ‘Some Other Song’ – a sweet love song that has much in common with Perfect From Now On’s swooning mid-tempo heartbreakers – brings things back to the hearth (“I can’t wait to get back home to you”).
Fuzzy, scratched melodies suddenly dissipate to let Martsch ask futile questions through ‘So’, and the band answer them with screaming, glorious guitars. A sparser guitar line provides the hook on ‘C.R.E.B’, an acronym for ‘cAMP response element-binding protein’, one involved in the long term memory process. “I never meant to forget you/ I always forget people I really like” he admits as the vocal pitches high into the ether on each lamenting sentence.
The album’s shortest track, ‘Horizon To Cliff’, is also one its most affecting; a gorgeous plea to “forget your heart is haunted” with the briefest of reverbed guitar solos. Guitars are front and centre throughout Untethered Moon; Jurassic chords and whines, beefed-up fuzz, and a plethora of bristling, duelling passages and modified riffs. ‘When I’m Blind’ features a chopping Dr Feelgood guitar riff that starts to mutate as it goes; splintering into shards of sonic chaos. What starts out as a screeching, skittery solo over the solid rhythm section transforms as Martsch flexes his experimental muscle to elicit varying degrees of harshly melodic, almost confrontationally abrasive tones from his guitar. The whole thing stretches to command the album’s latter section, collapsing in a rumble tumble morass of noise before once again bursting to life; regaining intent to take the song full circle with a proggy, eastern-tinged twin guitar riff.
Musically, and even with the inventive melodic twists led by Martsch’s chameleon-like guitar sounds, Untethered Moon may be the most straightforward album they’ve made since There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. When Martsch sings “And now it seems like the only thing on my mind/ Is getting all these things off my chest before I die” on ‘Another Day’, though, it’s a validation that this is a collection that takes the same cathartic journey as Built To Spill albums past. Even when referencing the smallest particles and the farthest stars, Martsh ultimately relates everything back to the things that he has the least control over – the hippocampus and the heart; flawed, untethered organisms.