Cold Specks, Neuroplasticity

Britt Robson

By Britt Robson

on 08.26.14 in Reviews

Al Spx, aka Cold Specks, doesn’t sing her music so much as she stalks it. Although a native Canadian, her voice is imbued with the visceral tone and plaintive testimony reminiscent of gospel in the American South. But the tribulations sung in the church are meant to be resolved through tension and release. Spx seemingly can’t — or maybe doesn’t want to — escape from the tension. The ultimate effect is more gothic than gospel.

Doom soul, in spades

When Spx labeled the songs on her debut, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, as “doom soul” two years ago, it perplexed some listeners. The atmosphere was bleak, but it was leavened by spare folk arrangements with Spx occasionally relaxing into a croon. There was beguiling mystery in the darkness.

Neuroplasticity is doom soul, in spades, with the folk flourishes banished. Most of the music is heavier than Expulsion, a midnight-blue, brutish pop-rock soundtrack to the forests in horror films. Meanwhile, Spx is staking out her fears, plaints and grim narratives with an unshakeable intensity. On “Absisto,” the lead single, Spx announces that “a fury unseen chips away in me,” warning that “all the screams of the past will come crawling out to get you.” And on the closer, “A Season of Doubt,” set off by bleats from jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, she sings, “We move like wolves in the dead of night/ and we dance like ghosts deprived of flight.”


Cold Specks

Aside from the blues riff anchoring “Living Signs,” about the only musical respite from this tension is the peppy “Bodies at Bay,” yet even here, Spx uses the music as an extension of the foolhardy escapism in the lyrics (“We turn our heads/ We don’t look back”).

The word neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize and adapt, and here Spx has made a startling left turn. The presence of Swans leader Michael Gira — a mentor and inspiration to her — on a couple of tracks suggest that the more surging and abrasive music suffusing Neuroplasticity was part of her purpose all along. That she rearranged and adapted, despite the successful template established on Expulsion, makes Neuroplasticity all the more gutsy and artistic.