Published Jul 07, 2020In the last few years, the '90s alt-rock revival has been able to flourish not only because several era-defining acts returned two decades later with new albums — including Slowdive, Rainer Maria, My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver and Hum — but because even before that happened, a younger crop of bands had already emerged to finish what their heroes had started. Among those torchbearers are Kestrels, the Halifax band whose spirited fourth album Dream or Don't Dream brings to mind a veritable Hall of Fame of mid-'90s guitar music.
It's worth tracing Kestrels' path to this point. Early on, the band channelled the second-gen emo sounds of Sunny Day Real Estate, Braid and the Promise Ring. Since Kestrels' debut in 2009, singer and guitarist Chad Peck and his changing cast of a backing band have gradually leaned further toward the noisy, the spacey and even the old-school. By 2016, their self-titled album had effectively found them at the nexus of shoegaze and Smashing Pumpkins, bolstered by increasingly noteworthy songcraft and production value.
Here, Kestrels draw from a broad pool of influences while being clearer than ever about what they're all about. Songs that channel power-pop hitmakers Jimmy Eat World and Sloan sit alongside the ugly-duckling ambitions of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. The distinctively contemplative emo sound in songs like "Don't Dream" and "A Way Out" is juxtaposed against the uptempo energy of "Vanishing Point" and "Everything Is New." And there are more than a few rip-roaring guitar solos (remember those?), including a particularly wild one contributed by the legendary J Mascis in the single "Grey and Blue."
Written and recorded at several studios (including Steve Albini's Electrical Audio in Chicago) and mixed by John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Alvvays, Kurt Vile), Dream or Don't Dream was made with big-name rock reverence and the combined power of multiple guitar-obsessed minds. There are phasers, flangers, reverbs, fuzzes, tape delays and pitch-shifters all working together to make a loud, sustained burst of sound — the guitars frequently oscillating, disintegrating, spinning out of control and blowing up in real time — that's just barely tamed by the instinct to make music first and noise second.
Peck's voice is mild and airy, and while it isn't necessarily buried in the mix — as is the case with many contemporaries like Nothing and Cloakroom — it still sounds as if it's coming through a thick mist, the edges softened and dampened, the act of singing careful not to be overexposed. Consequently, the lyricism is given less of a priority than instrumentation, despite several songs that are calling out for emotional engagement.
Dream or Don't Dream finds the atmospheric aesthetics of shoegaze and the rambunctious gusto of riff-loving classic rock colliding head-on with a deeper desire to deliver earnest pop songs instilled with sensitivity and feeling. In short, it's dream-pop that shreds. When they're at their best, Kestrels are experts at ratcheting up the speed and fortitude within the swirling, hazy kaleidoscope of a guitar nerd's fantasy. (Darla)