“No one shares, no one shares, no one shares anymore / Just the kids, just the kids, just the kids and the poor.” So sing Group Of The Altos on “Learning To Share,” the opening track of their second record, R U Person Or Not. What’s notable about the moment isn’t what the band is singing, but the fact that the previously instrumental group is singing at all. All throughout Person, words are employed just as judiciously as trumpets, strings, and distorted guitars. It’s one of the many bold, left-field surprises waiting to leap out from the album—an album, it should be noted, created by a band that boasts anywhere between 12 and 17 members, and one that seems to change its name from “Altos” to “Group Of The Altos” almost as much as it changes musical gears. But it’s that impetuousness that gives the band its identity, and gives Person the distinction of being the the group’s finest work to date.
On 2011’s Altos, Daniel Spack (Volcano Choir) and company hewed close to their self-description as a “surly high school orchestra,” carving out sprawling but precise vistas from post-rock granite. But on Person, the unruly outfit embraces a newfound sense of urgency, turning in remarkably compact compositions that are more “rock” than “experimental.” The eight songs that make up the album are therefore more accessible and weirder than anything Group Of The Altos have ever done. End-of-the-world trumpets, primal drums, and handclaps echo throughout the knotty “Learning To Share.” “Gun” features alternately manic and pretty gang vocals over a distorted, staccato guitar on loan from Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack, and ends with some idle studio chatter. Even more unexpected and impressive is a surprise turn from Klassik on the sub-two-minute “Fucks With Us.” Like WebsterX’s guest spot on Soul Low’s “Heard It All Before,” it combines indie instrumentation and rap flawlessly. Elsewhere, “On Wreck” stomps and towers over everything before and after it, while “Forgiveness Rules” takes a funky, off-kilter riff and turns it into a brief, shouted cry of a song. The album’s longest track, “Coplight,” is also its most lovely, starting from a Lynchian wash of noise and slowly transforming into a mournful, ethereal prayer. (Along with “News From Wino,” it’s also the song that bears the most resemblance to Volcano Choir.)
Spack has said Person is the band’s “punk rock record,” which isn’t far off. In the best sense of the words, it’s a jagged, rushed, and breathless album, full of new ideas and scuffed-up versions of old ones. It deepens and nicely complicates a band that’s already unwieldy and unclassifiable. Just listen to the howling, vocal-heavy highlight “To Savior” and try to square it with the group’s previous work. Still, both then and now, “cinematic” seems to sum up Group Of The Altos’ sound and ethos. But where Altos was filled with impeccably framed visions of beauty and dread, Person goes handheld. It’s a risky but liberating move, and one that ultimately produces an unhinged, unlikely masterpiece. Listen to it now, only at Milwaukee Record.