CIA: Surgery Channel Album Review

Ty Segall has spent the past 15 years building an extensive discography of solo releases, side projects and genre experiments that branch out into familiar yet distinct phenotypes of the Californian auteur’s strumming rock’n’roll. The CIA, however, is an outlier in the Segall-verse, expanding his reach rather than filling in gaps. Formed in late 2017 by Ty, wife Denée Segall and Cairo Gang frontman Emmett Kelly, the trio emerged with a unique blend of worn electronics, gentle bass and Denée’s snarling spoken word. While their 2018 debut occasionally drowned in its own marinade of squelching reverb and rampant feedback, Denée’s charisma and the band’s playful rhythms fleshed out a solid slab of its still-forming ethos.

Returning five years later with Surgery channel, the CIA discards the hollow echo and zeroes in on the whirring, grinding textures of a well-oiled torture device. It’s an upgrade in every sense, hitting harder and delving deeper into the band’s shimmering modular synth work as they cleverly detour from their established post-punk blitz. Although the majority of Segall’s releases are identifiable by their crazy barre chords and distorted leads, no member of the CIA owns a six-string guitar. Instead, Ty and Emmett both play primarily bass, splicing fragmentary riffs and gurgling chunks of atonal synthesizer atop bare-bones drum machine loops.

There is little in the way of melody on Surgery channel. Instead, the band forms a curtain of fuzz that twists, swells and undulates like a snake’s belly. Denée’s writing works in the same vein, communicating through quick rhythmic pulses. She layers disjointed sentences in a brusque manner that is opaque yet impressionistic, as if covering a canvas in black paint, drawing attention to each brushstroke. After a brief volley of hollow snares on “Better,” she conjures up a series of images like an overstimulated brain scrambling to process its surroundings. “A flush inside/A red on the skin,” she mutters, before offering herself empty comfort every time she reaches the chorus: “It gets better, it gets better, it gets better.” The band’s twisting low end, similar to the sound of a moaning pipe, adds a sense of urgency.

Denée’s range as both a writer and performer has expanded over the past decade, evolving from a garage-rock yawp to a creepier, assured presence. On “Inhale Exhale” she barks like a drill sergeant, while on “The Wait” she bounces between a whispered verse and growled chorus that sounds downright inhuman against a short-circuiting bassline. Her ambitions, in turn, push Ty and Emmett out of their own comfort zones, especially on Surgery channel‘s second half, where the band gets creative with its drum programming and palette.

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