"Emperors of Japan" sounds like something somebody would name their band while under the influence of psychedelic drugs. The Phoenix band sounds like it's on a fabulous trip, too. Their latest album, Activator, opens with a song called "The Jesus Bee," which is all woozy surf guitar with indecipherable, upper-register vocals layered over the fuzz. It sorta sounds like Gish-era Smashing Pumpkins, with a last-minute takeover by Sonic Youth (the end of the song is all distorted noise rock). The falsetto vocals continue on the following track, "Teenage Girls in Heat," which dumps the distortion for bottom-heavy groove rock akin to Queens of the Stone Age. Then there's "Necha-Godzilla," which lurches along on a fat bass line and screeching guitars until the singer comes screaming into the chorus, à la Frank Black on 75 percent of the Pixies' songs. Other tunes, like the Paul Westerberg-ish "You'll Never Make a Monkey Out of Me" are more straight-up indie rock. The two unifying factors are a much more polished sound than the band's previous album, Your Freak Majesty, and the amazing ability to bridge the best parts of early college radio rock with modern pop experimentation. Highly recommended for anybody who remembers when "alternative" meant something.
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