Like a deer in psychedelic-lights

Deerhunter’s album ‘Cryptograms’ drenches the music in heavy drugged-out drones

Haily Gostas

OK, fine. For all the toil and trouble that went into completing the album “Cryptograms,” Deerhunter can have a generous A for effort.

Deerhunter
ALBUM: “Cryptograms”
LABEL: Kranky Records

The Atlanta five-piece did, after all, take nearly two years to finish their second full-length album, a consuming pet project that placed emotional, physical and financial strains on the band.

Unfortunately, the praise largely stops there. Sure, the men of Deerhunter don’t hesitate to show their bones on this sprawling, visceral psych-rock opus, but it’s still never quite meaty enough to satisfy.

Arranged in chronological sequence from separate recording sessions, “Cryptograms” often feels like two different albums: sometimes turbid and nebulous, sometimes ethereal and precise, always overly rampant with guitar squeals, booming drums and abstract sonic drone.

The first half, originally wordless and bordering on psychological drivel, was first recorded in 2005 without much success. The studio time failed to provide anything feasible, and was racked with technical and personal difficulties including broken instruments, lead singer Bradford Cox’s frequent panic attacks and a modest tape machine that inadequately captured the band’s attempts at ambience.

Exactly one year later, Deerhunter reluctantly crept back into the studio and rerecorded the same songs in a day’s work. When the album’s final six tracks were tackled later in just a few takes during November 2005, Deerhunter felt rejuvenated and convinced that the resulting odd duality of “Cryptograms” would somehow be the best route.

What a shame, then, that most of their prized, time-honored work is a tad too psych-heavy, art-damaged and just plain difficult to truly enjoy.

“Cryptograms” has a slow start with a nearly three-minute introduction bogged down by distorted nature noises and frighteningly filtered vocal hums, but it merges successfully into the title track (and one of the album’s rare, beautiful beasts). “My greatest fear/ I fantasized/ The days were long/ The weeks flew by/ Before I knew/ I was awake/ My days were through/ It was too late,” Cox cries over a frenzied, but ultimately pleasing, wall of sound. As the song hurls toward its chaotic conclusion, a repetition of the eerie closing mantra, “There was no sound” surfaces, paralyzing in its power.

Sadly, the ability to decipher precisely what’s being sung about stops there, as “Cryptograms” starts to swell under its increasingly epic noise and completely smothers what is likely excellent prose.

Songs like the screeching “Lake Somerset,” propelled by dirty bass and paranoid snare, start fairly catchy but soon dissolve into frustratingly repetitive loops too obnoxious for anyone not under the influence. This seems to be “Cryptograms” biggest problem – Deerhunter’s incessant interspersion of loosely structured yet promising numbers with a handful of extended instrumental passages that bore quickly.

The second half is a glimpse of visible terrain (as opposed to groping in the dark through the first), and thankfully proves to be worlds more accessible. Opening with the continuous climax of “Spring Hall Convert,” these songs depict a calmer, more confident Deerhunter.

All the damn sludge-psych finally gives way to more relaxed, if not swooning, dream-pop; but, of course, it eventually gets amplified and out of hand all over again, leaving the songwriting buried and Cox’s luxurious purr lost in a sea of sound. The excellent finale “Heatherwood,” with its junkyard percussion and soaring melodies, is all that comes up for air.

“Cryptograms” does contain a handful of solid tracks, but most overstay their welcome. Worse, every accomplishment is matched with a sputter-and-stop dud too incoherent and tedious to rival. Ironic for an album title that suggests mystery, “Cryptograms” is unfortunately the type that never titillates, only exasperates. Like a self-conscious subject, Deerhunter always seem a bit too out of frame for any real focus.