In December of 2016, Philadelphia’s own So Totally released an EP titled a cheap close-up of heaven during the indie rock revival on the East Coast. The following year would see the release of show-stopping albums by broader genre contemporaries, diverting the excitement of would-be So Totally fans. 2017 saw the release of pleasure suck by The Spirit of the Beehive, A Hairshirt of Purpose by Pile, Rocket by Sandy (Alex G), and a slew of other, similar bands. Even groups like Hovvdy and Horse Jumper of Love put out impressive efforts that more or less left little to be desired from outside sources. More music has come out in the interim, and So Totally had been all but left in the memories of Philly show-goers who may have caught a set here or there. This band is by no means bad; they simply were not fiddling with the formula in a way that their cohorts had been.
Whatever you ultimately chalk it up to, the fact remains: very few people were waiting with bated breath for the first proper So Totally album to drop. On May 3rd, when In The Shape Of… entered the ring, it didn’t turn too many heads outside their audience of dedicated Philadelphians. This is a bit of a shame, because although it may not catch the band making some major splash onto the scene, it does showcase a progression which deserves recognition. So Totally’s debut sees them leaning into more spacious and experimental territory, yet also cultivating a soothing and intimate presence. It’s an interesting macro-to-micro relationship, as distant & familiar as your own thoughts. Clearly, the four-piece has not simply been sitting around watching paint dry since their last installment.
First and foremost, the band deserves credit for improving on their song structure in a crucial way. Looking back, a cheap close-up of heaven had a scrappier, more acerbic presence than In The Shape Of does. If the first song on the previous record acted as the aiming of a slingshot, the second song lets things fly. The songs lose momentum until they wrap up in woozy disinterest, as if the band members got tired of playing. Though some songs really kicked out with energy, every single one eventually settled into vaguely identical spacey passages.
This predictable format betrayed the strengths of the band members, and though a bit more understated, In The Image Of certainly has a lot more to say. “Sike” kicks off the album as a mission statement, presenting something more texturally varied than past material while still ascribing to a relatively straightforward song structure. Right from the start, the band sounds squashed and trance-like until the bass line promptly kicks in, launching the guitars forward with a humid energy similar to that which characterized the sound of Title Fight’s transitional album Hyperview. Following this, “Attention” quickly establishes the cavernous tendencies of the album’s mix and builds upon the effects of each component as the song progresses, draping ever more guitar wash behind warped vocal delay.
Many songs on this album present a genuine crystallization of intent in songwriting, rather than just an improvement. While attempts at shoegaze-y spaciness on the last release seemed a bit aimless, In The Shape Of finds the band knowing where and when to pepper in satisfying sonic touches, confidently constructing an experience rather than just a standard song. “Vision” is a perfect example, starting off with a choppy, skeletal vocal refrain that gets threaded in again as the song builds to the masterful implementation of tonal guitar feedback. Meanwhile, “No Heaven” and “Mama” establish themselves on tension-building riffage and haunting ambience, while “Through The Wall” tacks a thoughtful, far-off wash of harmonics that leans into early Modest Mouse territory onto the end of the ambient, soothing Slowdive-y jamming we’ve come to expect. These songs are not only more successful at maintaining their own unique personalities than those on past works, but they string together well and create an altogether satisfying album experience. The music no longer loses the listener; rather, the listener gets lost in the music.
At first I was unclear as to whether I thought this ethereal, vaporous mix was the best move, as one of the highlights of a cheap close-up of heaven was its punchier, up-front production. At times it’s a bit frustrating that the vocals aren’t cranked a bit higher in the mix; the lack of showcasing some of the more impactful lyrical content featured on this album is almost criminal. The general character of the lyrics is a bit on the impressionistic side, outlining emotional takeaways about specific experiences in an open-ended way. They’re just as evocative as the rest of the music, a perfect example being the only four lines in “Mama”: “I’ll only be gone for the weekend / A change in scenery as a form of self-therapy / Taking day trips to the coast is getting old / I don’t know when I’ll be home”. This description carries a haunting emotional weight, depicting something enjoyable no longer doing its job. The pure poetics are something that get a bit lost in the mix, you see, but ultimately the band’s commitment to aesthetic continuity is admirable, and it pays off well in this venture.
So Totally has a mood that is as elusive as their members seem to be; none of their social media outlets or Bandcamp releases reveal their identities in full. Perhaps they never meant to strive for, or even actively avoided, the same high profiles of some of their genre contemporaries, but the band certainly has reached a point in their craft that deserves praise. Praise which, even by casual observation, has been earned via successful self-discovery, and the toil it takes to get there.
- Matured songwriting, more comfortable/successful/interesting experimentation
- Complimentary vocal and instrumental processing, providing more solid overall musical aesthetic
- More impactful mixing could be employed in the future