Casper Skulls’ debut EP screams dystopia. The words “death” or “dying” appear in every song on the Toronto postpunk outfit’s Lips & Skulls—a feat generally reserved for the blackest of black metal bands—but the descriptive poetry they use to convey the darkness is as varied as the voices of dual vocalists Melanie St-Pierre and Neil Bednis. On opener “Devotion,” Bednis barks a busy Orwellian screed (about crime and punishment, sports fandom, and the dualistic nature of man) through a virtual megaphone, while two woozy chords churn like an ungreased assembly line behind him. That mechanical quality carries into the musically-ambitious title track, but St-Pierre’s more refined vocals feel continents away from Bednis’s, and the song’s seemingly bourgeois, fashion-obsessed protagonist seems to genuinely fetishize death.
It’s on the EP’s third track, “Errands,” that the young band first displays their true versatility. “Errands” might be a mid ’90s Pavement b-side (right down to Bednis’s tipsy warble) if it weren’t also the EP’s most conventionally narrative cut, telling a rather disheartening story of a dying father and his ungrateful son. It’s a great stand-alone track, and an even finer centerpiece for a perfectly-paced EP, the last two songs of which seem to mirror its first two. That is until the nearly six-minute closer, “Caught On a Wire” diverges from its fittingly Wire-esque central guitar signature and breaks down into various movements, each more melodically distinct and more adventurous than the last. There’s a lot here to separate Casper Skulls from the pack, from the subversive lyrics to the angular, explosive sound. The poetic/heavy combo echoes the style of some notable elder Torontonians, but Casper Skulls’ seem infinitely more willing to wade out into unsightly postmodern muck than the comparatively optimistic Constantines ever did.
That a contemporary punk band could deliver so many promising variations on a theme within the confines of a thirty-minute EP is pretty impressive. That it has done so before ever releasing a full-length, that’s cause for celebration. (Just make sure it’s a fittingly morbid Celebration.)