When your album title spans the whole alphabet, you better bring enough musical ideas to justify the phonetic girth. It’s the type of title that suggests variety, ambition and an all-encompassing worldview. It’s not a timid move. ABCDEFG-HIJKLMNOP-QRSTUV-WXYZ (yep, that’s what it’s called), the follow-up to 2010’s Wife Of God from Brooklyn orchestral-prog-punk group Starring, has about 100 ideas for every letter in the alphabet, more than making up for the conceptual wonkiness of the name, but what sets the album apart from your run-of-the-mill post-rock record is its ability to assemble seemingly disparate instruments and styles into bracing, muscular songs that encourage repeat listens instead of demanding them. It turns every letter of the alphabet into something worth shouting about.
Starring front-woman Clara Hunter likes to describe the band’s music as “sparkle-prog,” and that’s as fitting a description as anyone is going to dream up. What separates the band from the more turgid and staid strands of progressive rock is its scrappy ingenuity and its exuberant, starry-eyed approach. It takes a bit of moxie to call your opening song “the best,” but it takes genuine chutzpah to belt out a snippet of Tina Turner’s “The Best” in the midst of a swirling, drum assault from founding member and Pterodactyl drummer Matt Marlin. “Simply the best/Better than all the rest,” murmurs Hunter, turning Turner’s ballad of devotion into a droll psychedelic provocation. It’s the type of flippant pop reference that signals to a listener: “Hey, pay attention. Everything is fair game here.”
Where many modern prog-rock bands emphasize the complexity of the compositions over emotional tonality and mood, Starring understands there’s a gleeful joy in playing and listening to prog; there’s a reason Robert Wyatt always has a twinkle in his eye. Starring takes elements of ’70s free-jazz, Krautrock, minimalism and ’90s post-rock and refastens them as a vessel for joy and positivity. Sure, it can be a jarring experience. Listening to ABC… often feels like getting peppered with a double-barrel paint-ball gun, but it’s such a bustling, hyper-active burst of color that you forgive the occasional bruise.
The album reaches its dizzying height on its two longest tracks, “———ooooooooooo” and “….7….,” which both break the nine-minute mark. Given the opportunity to space things out and meander, the group is able to conjure a buoyant hypnotic power. “———ooooooooooo” begins with an interstellar section of Who-like organ vamping, warped guitar textures and pitter-patter percussion, before shifting to a mystical section of Hunter’s ethereal vocals, then transitioning to even more baroque organ noodling and finishing with romantic murmurs from Hunter. It’s repetitive, yes, but it’s also transfixing, like someone stretched a Beach House song into a thin membrane and wrapped it around the cosmos. “….7….” is more on the haunting and creepy side, using a searing violin part to set the stage for a noise-based guitar dirge.
“Aphonia” is the closest the band comes to writing a traditional propulsive math-rock anthem. Its gradually shifting guitar line, lumbering drums and big cathartic vocal parts (“Oh, you’re such a smooth operator,” sings Hunter) provide a nice punk fulcrum between the intimidating pillars of “———ooooooooooo” and “….7….” That type of expert sequencing helps to give the record a vibrant sense of variety and color. At times the album plays like the Soft Machine’s Third rewritten using only Crayola’s, glitter and construction paper. Despite the band’s expert playing and sophisticated reference points, there’s still a child-like sense of wonder at work in these songs. Maybe that explains the curious title?