It’s always a good sign when an album’s lead single is the best thing a band has ever done; such is the case with garage-punk outfit Flat Worms and ‘Market Forces’. It’s a track that takes the band slightly outside scuzzy, lo-fi rock and treads a cleaner and more straightforward garage rock line. It beams with a higher sheen production than previous releases and has an earworm guitar lick that will keep you busy for days. You could not wish for a better garage rock single in 2020.
The polished production is pertinent too, because it’s certainly evident on Antarctica - the second album proper from LA three-piece Flat Worms - particularly side-by-side with the band’s 2017’s debut. The production is not scientific or fabricated by any means, but the touch of notorious rock producer Steve Albini is clear to see. I once described Flat Worms as “the savage young understudy (to Oh Sees); the dirty fightin’ kick you when you’re down’s. So rough around the edges they must wear a sandpaper wife-beater.” Flat Worms’ eponymous debut album evoked humid dive-bar-basements, cram-packed with sweating barbarians looking to get torn a new earhole. Antarctica has shown us what happens when the guys step up the swagger a little and throw on a clean denim shirt.
Alongside the wonderful ‘Market Forces’, second lead single and album opener, ‘The Aughts’, is a solid psychy-garage single, perhaps the track most evocative of first album Flat Worms and the second-best track on the new album.
And the remaining 25+ minutes? I didn’t enjoy it much. There was a tough realisation. Antarctica meanders and veers, devoid of identity and struggling to settle on something cohesive. Nobody would necessarily want 10 tracks of balls-out rock and roll, or 10 tracks of something of the opposite. But your attentive listener today needs some semblance of narrative or theme, and it isn’t here. Antarctica feels prosaic and rudderless the longer it continues. The title track 'Antarctica' is undirected and listless, a misstep slump into slacker rock à la Parquet Courts. The following track ‘Via’ is nonchalant and toothless. Where is the bombast, the bite, the grit? Vocalist Will Ivy is no screecher, certainly, but throughout Antarctica, he sounds missing. Antarctica was supposed to be a rock record more significant, more aggressive, more something. In the end, as the lacklustre ‘Terms Of Visitation’ brings the album to an abrupt end, I felt unstirred and underwhelmed by a record that couldn’t figure out what it wanted it to be.
There are crumbs of something grander in later tracks ‘Condo Colony’ and ‘Wet Concrete’; the former a desert-rock ripper akin to first-album Queens of the Stone Age. But again, even these two tracks are choked by the absolutely pointless 42-second ‘Signals’ that sits between.
Has a supposed brighter production altered the authenticity of the band on record? Has the absence of lo-fi charm – the roughness around the edges - that made Flat Worms such a draw to begin with left them bereft of their hook? I’m not so sure. We are after all dealing with grunge-master Steve Albini at the wheel here, not Mark Ronson. He knows a thing or two about capturing this type of band. I’d argue that most songs on Antarctica simply aren’t strong enough and that’s really all there is to it.
Antarctica is a decent enough rock record if that is literally all you’re looking for. If you had been salivating at the prospect of something more then it’ll probably disappoint. I remain convinced that Flat Worms have far better to come.