Colorful pitch manipulation and earthy distortion characterize much of the album, which often runs its effects through electric guitars, Lusk's petri dish of choice. The underlying skeletons to these songs, however, are straightforward drums and simple chord progressions, which keeps Lusk's vastly warped tones from becoming too disorienting. In scientific terms, he weighs his variables against his constants to most effectively test his ideas, and To Be Human documents the results.
"Can't" is a prime example of this. A fertile groove anchored somewhere in the past between new wave and post-punk styles sounds perfectly general until the odd choices creep in. The vocals, which proclaim "I can't find my rhythm," are uncentered by warpy pitch modulation, and further lyrics take a back seat to the track's central guitar part. There could be up to a dozen other guitars on "Can't", all serving a different purpose of the mix, but the focus is on a simple upward gliss that repeats over and over. It's soon made clear when it is backmasked after the chorus that this is, in fact, a looped sample. Later in the song, though, the repetitive gliss is picked up and mimicked by a live take in a deft sleight of musical hand. The guitarist then pitches down before launching into a wonky half-minute solo, all while the groove supports it.
Other cuts on the album prove to be as unpredictable. "10 AM" starts out with distant singing before introducing a monotone vocoder that is pitched a half note out of key. It doesn't compete with the tonality of the song so much as it stands out from it, like it doesn't quite belong. When "Faceless" shows up in the tracklist, it takes a left turn out of the preceding 2-minute instrumental of distorted ambience with an abrupt chorus and goofy, flatly pulsating square wave upbeats.
While these overtly subversive bells and whistles jump out, they comprise a smaller portion of To Be Human than it may seem. Many of the songs are just solid garage rock jams that incorporate the record's experimental tone in a subtler way. Tracks like "Stones Throw" and "Fast Talk" use plenty of effects pedals and reverb with their unconventional melodies, but they don't make a big deal of it. Rather, in the context of the album, they play out as the more grounded component, the side that favors blending in over sticking out.
Blake Lusk's music here is comparable to his work in Shishio, his noise rock act of the past few years, but the change in format and scope sets the two considerably apart. Lusk did put out a more intimate solo record last year, but his turn as solo artist this time is ironically his fullest and most collaborative of any project he's manned, featuring the work of 16 other musicians. For some artists, having a band would broaden their musical possibility, but it seems that Lusk may have been limited. Shishio proved that limitations can be a fruitful construct—the group once recorded an album on a stormy road trip with only iPhones—but To Be Human shows just how far one can go when untethered by the consequences of a live band performance.
For a guy who has been known to noose an electric guitar from the ceiling over a speaker during his own solo shows, Lusk could have easily gone more avant-garde with his latest work. Instead, he bridges to that sensibility with familiar constructs, challenging listeners without being completely impenetrable. In fact, the album's excellent final two tracks, "Creatures" and "We're Still Young", have accessible, tangible melodies and song structures. If it weren't for the former's noisy indulgence and the latter's droll performance, they could possibly play to a wider audience.
As it stands, the LP feels at home on Tape Gun Records, the experimental record label that hosts Shishio's catalogue along with further obscurities. Like that label, To Be Human is designed for the underground; it's the kind of album that's destined to be hyped and name-dropped by collector types rather than streamed and forgotten by casual listeners. It's wild, it's unconventional, and it's how progress is made. And if that isn't the true calling of a scientist, what is?
To Be Human is available for optional purchase on Tape Gun Records' official Bandcamp page. It can also be streamed via Apple Music and Spotify.