Pretentious? Lazy? Vague? It's hard to tell which best describes Trophy Scars when glancing at the track listing for their second full-length, Alphabet. Alphabets.. I actually thought "strange" before anything, because even as eccentric as the latter day post-hardcore outfit from New Jersey has been on past outings, nothing has matched a 16-track effort in which nearly every song contains a word starting with 'A' and repeated in plural form. While I've yet to decipher the meaning of it, it's an eye catching trait if nothing else, and hopefully one that will drag in people to a rather ambitious, accomplished album.
The band's early sound was one very obviously influenced by bands ranging from Thursday to the Blood Brothers, conveying artistic intensity in epic, prolonged bursts. Since the moment the band started perfecting it on their 2004 EP, Hospital Music for the Aesthetics of Language, it seems as though these influences have smoothed out and the band has thus developed into a definitively unique one. The songs are even more epic, extracting moments of prog and post-rock to make up near atmospheric backgrounds and providing the backdrop to Jerry Jones' shaky sneer.
The other strange thing about Alphabet. Alphabets. is that nearly every song sounds like it should close the album. There's a feeling of winding down for these songs, a sense of decrescendo with the songs landing in the nearly 4-to-5-minute range. The band includes Led Zeppelin / Pink Floyd-via-modern emo rock riffs in "Artist. Artists.;" anyone familiar with Boys Night Out's "Dying" will know exactly what I'm talking about. "Absolute. Absolutes." speaks of "crickets dying in the snow" and segues to "Alchemist. Alchemists." with a dramatic, up-tempo piano cross-section; the latter song adds layers and layers before a soft breakdown and the same piano. "Alligator. Alligators." is, at over 7 minutes, the longest track here, but placed at 12 of the 16 tracks; it's also Jones' customary Conor Oberst pose, one he's done on past efforts mindblowingly and done in a more complete fashion here with wandering piano strokes, acoustic flourishes, classically dramatic strings and riffs placed dissonantly in the background (not to mention a number of voice mails from an apparent [ex-?]girlfriend). The CD officially winds down after, rather timidly; the song lengths in order go 1:08, 3:16, 2:32, and 0:39.
Various instrumentation poses throughout, but its best use seems to be in "Addict. Addicts.." Bizarre horns wail subtly through, sounding like something off Cursive's forthcoming venture. Quiet and tasteful strings are used on a few songs, as well.
It does seem like the band is still a little perverted. A song on the band's EP of last year, Goodnight Alchemy, featured an entirely-too-long part involving a girl sexually moaning, while a few here carries on that same overly sexual manner. "Alchemist. Alchemists." provides the simulation of such an act, and while musically it presents those feelings very well, lyrically it feels like turning into the corner of a back alley suddenly upon a furiously masturbating hobo. "Assassin. Assassins." is downright vulgar, with a hip-hop verse taking it out and concluding "These situations got me cravin' the rush so much I want to reach out and touch, clutch your bullets, load your nuts, finger fuck the rust off your trigger, hear you hush chamber thrust then you bust." The style changeup is a welcome addition, in the least.
However, besides a lazy rhyme about green eggs and ham, the band's lyrical ability usually out-legs those few missteps. "Apparition. Apparitions." cleverly tells a story of a sour relationship from its violent end to peaceful, happy beginning. "Assistant. Assistants." recounts not so subtly, but refreshingly honestly, of the members' younger days involving basement drug sessions and forecasting of the future. This song is also where their metafiction starts; it was certainly a trait of the band in the past and has hardly washed away here, especially with a line like "'Jerry's lost his mind again; he's way too self-indulgent.'"
The one major problem here is that while the songs are particularly intriguing while listening, it's quite hard to decide what to make of them afterwards. Few parts stick out and memorability is at a premium. The band has certainly progressed their style admirably, but haven't quite mastered the potential of their songwriting yet.
So while Alphabet. Alphabets. is a little short on memorability and plenty full of sporadic song lengths and occasional overextensions, it's hard not to appreciate the thought and efforts to transform a style disgustingly raped in recent times. The band is still well early in their careers as well, and it's likely their songcraft will be well realized by the next stay in the studio.