For some reason, ear-splitting guitars are one of very few excruciating sounds that’s not only tolerable, but enjoyable. Flat Worms have perfected the art of absolutely filthy garage rock guitars—fans of grimy feedback and distortion will drool over this band. Their 2017 self-titled debut (recorded and mixed by Ty Segall) was driven by smoldering guitars, but unlike other noise punk bands, frontman Will Ivy’s vocals weren’t covered in the same soot. His clear, matter-of-fact speak-sing was a sharp contrast to their sonic sludge, and when paired with vigorous rhythms, it was the perfect soundtrack to blowing off steam. “Flying on feet: rush, rush / Three steps ahead: running, running / Rhythm in the lungs, heavy chest,” he sang on the antsy “Accelerated,” and that perfectly sums up the album’s resulting sensations.
On Antartica, the 2020 Steve Albini-recorded sequel from L.A.’s Flat Worms (guitarist/vocalist Ivy, bassist Tim Hellman and drummer Justin Sullivan), they dust off their instruments of mayhem, and though this record’s guitars might be ever so slightly less mucky and the tunes not quite as memorable, it’s still enough of a spastic, fun romp.
Their first album, much like this one, is very much of its time. Social critiques were sprinkled throughout their debut: “11816” was a reference to Trump’s rise, “Followers” accused social media of being a validation-based wasteland and “Red Hot Sand” charted the fall of Los Angeles, akin to the fall of Rome. But Antartica is an even more representative document. “Plaster Casts” examines class disparity, “Condo Colony” questions imperialism and unfettered capitalism, “The Aughts” pokes a hole in incrementalism, “The Mine” chronicles purposeful environmental ruin and ”Market Forces” marvels at the proliferation of soul-sucking corporate jobs. Of course, punk bands have offered anti-capitalist sentiments like these for decades (except ruminations on social media), but because many of these problems are far worse now than they’ve ever been, they all bear repeating.
You’ll likely be too distracted by their screeching guitars to take in the full landscape that Ivy is trying to paint, but his use of passing imagery to get these points across instead of mere preaching is commendable. The most moving scenes arrive via “Plaster Casts” and “Wet Concrete.” On the former, Ivy paints a damning picture—how miserable it must be for rich people to hoard classical art within the confines of their own castles, forcing the silent, noble subjects of such grand works to glare back with disapproval. And in the latter song, they imagine a surreal dream where rampant urban despair (particularly homelessness) has caused everyday people’s dreams (or perhaps foreboding images of the end times) to be literally engraved into the streets.
They seek to rattle the ground with their lyrics in the same way they do with their guitars, but the odds were always going to be stacked against them. As soon as the sheer pummel of “The Aughts” is underway, they’ve got you underneath their spell. Though their guitars are thick, ripping and drenched in overblown feedback, there’s something oddly prophetic or mystical about them. Flat Worms aren’t technically a psychedelic band, but the longer they let their feedback cry out, uninterrupted, you might begin rethinking their sonic categorizations. This is why garage rock almost seems like an unfair tag—many bands are happy to just unleash pedal-to-the-metal, dirty rock songs that are perfect for hole-in-the-wall bars. But it feels like Flat Worms are after something more.
They have the austere lyrical and vocal tendencies of a post-punk outfit, the rhythmically-tight chops of an incredibly adept punk band and the flamethrower guitar effects of the most batshit crazy garage-psych group. Take “Market Forces” as an example. Ivy spits about “documents from the mundane” as the band chugs along with invigorating precision, eventually exploding into various fiery riffs—some chipper and others so satisfyingly warped that it might make you feel existential. Then there’s the slinky, vaguely surfy title track, which proves the rare moments when they slow things down, you’ll still want to excitedly stomp around, unsure of how you’ll dispose of your pent-up energy. The ramping guitar outro of “Via” and steaming conclusion of “Ripper One” also signify their penchant for swelling finishes.
Antartica might fall short of the punk-pop immediacy of debut album cuts like “Motorbike” and “Goodbye Texas,” but it’s another fortifying garage punk record, hellbent on trying to shake you out of your shoes. After two punk stunners, this Los Angeles trio has every right to apply “caution hot” stickers to their guitars.
Lizzie Manno is an assistant music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno