Oh boy! Where to begin with this criminally short-lived noise/dance/punk trio?
If you were to take three caffeine-fueled maniacs out of the psych ward and lock them in a recording studio for a few weeks, what comes out on the other side would probably sound a lot like Test Icicles’ lone 2005 LP, For Screening Purposes Only. The record straddles half a dozen genres in its fifteen-track, 48-minute run, all of which are watermarked with their uniquely frenetic energy. It’s no wonder that at their outset, they were signed to Domino practically before the doctor had spanked them on the backside and said “Congratulations, it’s a band.”
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They generated an inordinate amount of buzz almost immediately, and offered a breath of fresh air with their utterly original brand of madness. Sam Mehran, Rory Atwell, and Devonte Hynes all shared the responsibilities of vocals and guitars, with Hynes manning the keys to produce their ear-splitting electronics. Notice the distinct lack of a drummer, a quite unusual detail to throw behind a band with the word “punk” in their given genre assignment and brings to mind drum machine-backed tech metal outfit Agoraphobic Nosebleed. Although, there was a lot about the band that didn’t quite make a lot of sense. To wit, their first four songs were written within a week of their first gig, band members cite Korn and Slipknot as influences, they hardly ever rehearsed, and none of them really even seemed to like their own band’s music all that much. In an interview with PopMatters in 2006, Mehran was shocked to learn that the journalist had listened to their whole album in the car on the way there. “After about six songs it becomes too intense. I’ve only listened to it twice,” added Hynes. It seemed like the band had no intention to go anywhere with the music, and yet for a brief moment in time they were dragged forth into the spotlight to display their studio-generated musical nuthouse before live audiences.
Hynes was not far off the mark with the aforementioned quip about the album’s intensity. From start to finish, there is hardly room to take a breath or mop up the blood that tends to pour from the listener’s eardrums. “We could do with some more noises”, the band chant in what is arguably the most palatable and well-known track, the upbeat and dance-laden “Circle Square Triangle”. One can only assume that this line was the mission statement for the band in the studio, and thus became the theme for the rest of their abbreviated existence.
The lead-off track, “Your Biggest Mistake”, offers a bit of a summary of the band for those who may be unwilling to wade deeper into Test Icicles’ waters. Atonal guitars scream at the listener from alternating sides while the mechanical drums thump away, led by the neck by gargling low-end synth textures that, following a down-tempo bridge, push the music back over the edge of a cliff into a distorted squall of shrieking. This framework continues shortly thereafter on “Maintain the Focus”, a mostly straight-up punk song that charges forth with dueling vocals and brief excursions into melody. The bouncy bass riff in “Pull the Lever,” backed by synth organs, carry the tune from a neon horror house to a chorus that would not seem out of place on a Bloc Party album. “What’s Your Damage” offers a more middle of the road (all things considered) punk oeuvre fit for crowdsurfers and pogo dancers. This more tame and straightforward approach rears up again later in “Party On Dudes (Get Hype)” which, though it begins with the singer nearly choking on his own screams, relaxes into an era-appropriate sound reminiscent of The Used and Bayside.
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Distortion and dissonance have a steadfast presence throughout, even as they traverse from genre to genre. “All You Need Is Blood” begins and ends in two different places. The intro sounds like the beginning of a bad metalcore band’s demo, and the final minute drops unexpectedly into a confusing dub outro before concluding with a suspenseful drum-and-bass interlude. Before long, you’ll reach deeper cuts like “Dancing On Pegs” where, following a spastic intro, the band progresses into what sounds something like a lost B-52’s track.
Throughout the record, Test Icicles’ vocals stretch from inebriated sing-talking to high-register squeals. On “Snowball”, Atwell delivers what could best be described as an Iggy Pop tribute, while the rest of the band follows suit behind a tambourine-kissed sound, conjuring impressions of The Stooges melded with electronica. It sounds odd on paper, but in practice is actually quite enjoyable. “Are you still here!?” he shouts during this eighth track, seemingly incredulous that the listener made it that far. To clarify, these criticisms are not to say that the music is bad. It’s not. It’s great fun and wholly original, but it is certainly not for the casual indulger. There needs to be at least a marginal appreciation of the noise subgenre to enjoy all of it. Take “Catch It”, for example. It’s completely dissonant from start to finish, with the nu-metal influences in full effect punctuated by barrages of dub/hip-hop interstitials drenched in layers of screams that create a sudden desire for a throat lozenge. This is the band not taking itself seriously, as evidenced by the repeated line “Bitches don’t know me / Bitches don’t own me.” The same harsh discordance resurfaces again on track 14 with “What’s Michelle Like?” From front to back on this one, it’s difficult to make heads or tails of what is happening, like a bad mushroom trip in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.
On the whole, For Screening Purposes Only takes a bit more effort to get into than the band put into preparing for their live shows during their short run. They’ve spoken publicly about not liking their music and how surprised they are that anyone did at all. However, nuts to them because whether they like it or not, they created one of the more memorable one-off records in recent memory, and we’re all going to keep on liking it. Though it would have been interesting to see what Test Icicles might have become given more time (and maybe a bass player and drummer), we can still remember fondly the jarring and visceral display of musical savagery that they left behind.