Album Review: The C.I.A – Surgery Channel

By Roman Salomone, Contributor

[In The Red Records; 2023]

Rating: 6/10

Key Tracks: “Impersonator”, “Over”, “Bubble”

With enough albums under his belt to break Wikipedia, Ty Segall has taken full advantage of his 14+ year career releasing as many albums, singles, splits, comps, and collaborations as humanly possible. More often than not, he sticks to his guns – dishing out nasty, lo-fi garage-psych jams and ragers so easily that it’s basically second nature. But every once in a while, Ty likes to branch off and go towards the edge of the deep end, which brings us to his newest project, Surgery Channel byThe C.I.A.

Read more: Album Review: Kaiba – Three Tyrsts

The C.I.A. is a three-piece supergroup formed by Ty, his wife Denée, and Cairo Gang’s Emmett Kelly. The trio released a pretty brief and semi-forgotten debut back in 2018, and kept the side project quiet up until October 2022 when they dropped some singles and announced a follow-up album was on the way. It’s also been a hot minute since Ty has dropped a real game changer, like the ambitious and exceptional double album Freedom’s Goblin back in 2018. So, going into this record, my fingers were crossed for another Reverse Shark Attack-level collaboration for Ty, but ultimately, I was expecting something that was likely to be middling like his last couple efforts. What I got was a mix was a strange lopsided mix of both that somehow makes the record feel fairly balanced.

The C.I.A. have a sound that’s definitely interesting, but not entirely unique. Their brand of spoken-word synth punk is definitely pulling from pioneers like Suicide and The Screamers. Now in practice, it tends to sound more like Guerilla Toss put on some Siouxie eyeliner, listened exclusively to No New York, and had Michael Cronin executive produce the LP. The irony, however, is that there’s not actually any synths in sight. Instead, the trio opt for a drum machine and two dueling bass guitars. However, the basses are bricked out, compressed, and mutilated with so much fuzz that, when combined with the sequenced beats, makes it sound more synthetic then, say, a DFA 1979 record. This ultimately results in some cool moments. Take the lead single “Impersonator” for example – a killer piece of slightly goth-tinged and nocturnal new wave. Denée’s sassy delivery is infectious and some of the quirky 80s qualities make it probably the most accessible song on the LP. 

Riff-wise, the cut “You Can Be Here” is essentially a synth-punk done with the speed and laser focus of a Motorhead single. It’s got all these densely packed stuttering hi-hat runs that pop out really strangely in the mix but add a lot of beautiful chaos. “Inhale Exhale” is a little messy, but the zaniness of it all really evokes an early XTC or peak DEVO that I can’t help but love. Denée’s vocals really shine on “Bubble”, a weirdly equal parts sensual and sinister track that rides off a really unsettling groove. Maybe the best cut on here is the track “Over”, which sounds like a self-titled LCD Soundsystem leftover getting digitally corrupted but in the best way possible. There’s all these driving, skipping beats that are sputtering like crazy, while Denée creeps her way through the song sounding especially ominous lyrics and a deadly delivery. 

Unfortunately though, there are a lot of failed detours and filler that bog down a fairly short album. The intro is pointless, the two-part title tracks should have been scrapped, and while I appreciate how weird Denée aimed for on “The Wait”, it just turned out a little too corny for an LP that’s pretty campy to begin with. However, the biggest offense here has to be “Construct.” It’s not a stellar tune on its own, but the vocal cadence follows the exact same one of Guerilla Toss’s “Dose Rate” verses… like one to one. It’s so specifically the same to the point where it feels like straight-up musical plagiarism. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if Denée’s voice didn’t sound exactly like Kassie Carlson’s voice, but leftfield synth dance-punk instrumentals and the little warby shots of effects that directly follow the lines just makes it alarmingly similar.

Surgery Channel obviously didn’t blow my mind, yet I didn’t have high expectations for it either. At the end of the day, I’m probably always going to root for Ty to do more of his emotional mugging or garage-glam ballads. Still, I came away liking this LP more than I hated it. It’s a cool little detour for the artists involved, and there’s definitely potential for this project to grow. Overall, I think it’s maybe worth a listen if you’re a decent fan of synth-punk and electronic-leaning no wave, but it’s still probably worth a try if you just think that Ty, Denée, and Emmett are pretty cool.

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