Three full-length albums in, Kal Marks see life as an adventure. It’s an admirable view, particularly for a band that called their first record Life Is Murder. The Boston trio’s latest, Universal Care, is thick and textured, depicting dense, ornate scenes of anger, boredom, frustration. Its 12 searing tracks drip and ooze together, eventually becoming one large, enveloping pool of primordial goop. Loud and abrasive as ever, frontman Carl Shane screams at the top of his lungs, releasing each and every unhealthy emotion that’s been flooding him. On Universal Care, there is freedom in rage.
This underlying sense of abandon shapes Universal Care’s hopefulness. Upon first listen, you might think there’s little light to be found within Kal Marks’ darkness. In reality, Kal Marks have mastered the art of injecting humor and perspective into an endlessly fucked-up world. After their 2013 debut came 2016’s Life Is Alright, Everybody Dies, which itself followed an EP called Just a Lonely Fart. Karl Marks address serious topics — on Universal Care, they include death and global warming —but have never taken themselves too seriously. It’s what makes even the darkest, sludgiest song feel like a breath of fresh air.
Universal Care opens with the menacing and churning “Fuck This Guy,” in which Shane’s guttural yawps drown in the ferocious, pummeling rhythms of bassist Michael Geocone and drummer Alex Audette. Even amidst their most punishing sounds, Kal Marks find time to incorporate more delicate, unexpected observations. Title track “Universal Care” is a well-measured march towards liberation culminating in soft, eerie atmospherics, while the surprisingly sprightly “A Place Amongst the Angry Hordes” adds the illuminating twinkle of keys. “Loosed” ventures into experimental post-punk territory, balancing tense dynamics with the band’s signature distortion. At nearly seven minutes, it’s the record’s sprawling and heroic masterpiece; as always, Kal Marks shine brightest when they accent their trademark grime with crisper, more lucid moments like these.
“Adventure” finds Shane on a journey unlike any he’s taken before. Gliding elegantly through a foggy haze of rhythmic shifts and shoegaze guitar, the song is deeply personal. “Still, I’d want to see you tonight/ And I can’t promise you an answer,” Shane sings. “All I know is it’s worth the adventure.” His direct and relatable optimism, set against a raging backdrop of perfectly controlled chaos, is part of what makes Universal Care the band’s most thoughtful and cohesive release yet.
Shane gets introspective on album closer “Today I Walked Down To The Tree, Read A Book, And When I Was Done I Went Back Inside.” As we all know, even the simplest pleasures can help ease the anxiety of life — which is, after all, a battle we’re all losing. “Youth is a fight, it will burn out and expire,” Shane sings, not as a stern warning, but with sort of a shrug. Free and more earnest than ever before, Kal Marks’ appeal remains universal.