The Irish noise-rock quartet Gilla Band (fka Girl Band) are masters at finding the humorous and horrific within the mundane. On “Pears for Lunch,” from the band’s 2015 debut album Holding Hands with Jamie, frontperson Dara Kiely sounded utterly rank as he rambled about taking his pants off and watching Top Gear, mostly because he was also covered in Sudocrem and talking to himself. The joke might’ve been that American audiences, who presumably hadn’t heard of this overseas miracle balm, could feasibly believe this was a song about the worst jerk-off session ever. But really, it was just another day of sitting in front of the TV in as few clothes as possible, soundtracked with claustrophobic, pummeling guitars that made the ordinary sound terrifying.
The band further cranked up this tension between adrenaline-racing noise and Kafkaesque scenarios on their engrossing 2019 sophomore LP The Talkies, which included a recording of Kiely having a panic attack. On follow-up Most Normal, the music is sometimes less violent; at other times, it’s the band’s most aggressive to date. Their hammer-over-the-head noise-rock tracks are as paranoid as ever, even as Kiely’s language less resembles the mumblings of a person disconnected from reality than those of someone whose anxieties are entirely relatable. Although the handful of newly pared-back songs would theoretically give him a broader space for these more approachable laments, the band don’t yet sound comfortable in this zone, and their work often masks Kiely’s hideous charms.
At its best, Most Normal, which Gilla Band produced themselves, reflects the group’s newly gradual creative process. The pandemic kept the band off live stages, where they had previously tried out their new songs before recording them, so they had plenty of time to labor over their work in the studio. This manifests in the extra layers of earsplitting guitar on the loud songs, which are some of their best yet. The brief distorted explosion on “I Was Away” feels like the generous piling-on of complete mayhem; the hellish guitars and skull-pounding percussion of “Eight Fivers” sound more imposing with each chorus.
On that one, Kiely snarls, “I spent all my money on shit clothes!” with his signature drollness, but he’s being newly straightforward here—this is just what he does, this is just who he is—and he makes bad fashion sound like a half-okay choice. On “Binliner Fashion,” he gets dressed up in plastic bags (did he predict the thousand-dollar Balenciaga garbage bag? Why is this a thing?), and his signature paranoia is uncharacteristically transparent: “In barbers’ chair / They laugh at my hair,” he murmurs. It sounds like something that would actually happen—maybe it’s even happened to you—and he isn’t subtle about hating it: He soon starts shouting raucously over a barrage of shrieking guitars and ballistic percussion that seems to continuously swell in intensity. Why hide behind grotesque imagery when you can just scream at the top of your lungs?
The album’s home stretch is where the notably less bombastic experiments arrive and underwhelm. On “Red Polo Neck,” as the band try their hand at a more midtempo, electronic-influenced noise sound that’s less belligerent, yet still plenty strange, Kiely’s voice gets pushed under the music. It’s an odd choice, given the more candid lyrics he’s sung on previous Most Normal tracks and because, on the best Gilla Band songs, even when you’re not sure what he’s saying, his wailing conveys his sardonic ire and quotidian discomfort. “Pratfall” is another midtempo noise experiment that falls flat: The chipmunk-esque second voice alongside Kiely’s is more annoying than distressing. You’re left wondering if the band could’ve spent more time sharpening these songs, especially since bassist Daniel Fox recorded and mixed the LP himself.
None of this is to say Gilla Band always need to run you over with a humvee to be effective. Closing track “Post Ryan” is remarkable because, atop little more than a sound that alternately resembles a shaver buzzing and a UFO landing, Kiely’s voice gets plenty of space, and his words are uncharacteristically transparent. “I’m in between breakdowns constantly,” he sings so slowly he’s practically spelling out the driving force behind his creativity; now, out in the open, he’s choosing to be forthright instead of ridiculous. It’s a big and vulnerable change for him: He apparently had to leave the room when his bandmates played the vocal demo. “I hid behind the surreal,” he sings at one point, and it sounds like a commitment to break this habit. On Most Normal, he starts baring his soul.
Sometimes, Max Freedman sits and writes about music, and sometimes, he just sits. Oh, and sometimes, he critiques, too. Follow him on Twitter and find his writing at Pitchfork, MTV News, The Creative Independent and, of course, here at Paste.