The sound of art-punk quartet ĠENN reflects their collective experience: tenacious drum lines from UK post-punk, sinuous vocal melodies inspired by Maltese folk music, and the heavy guitars of modern psych-rock or even nu-metal. Formed in Malta before moving to Brighton, the quartet has played together for a decade, releasing an album titled Titty Monster under the name Cryptic Street in 2018. On Unum, their debut as ĠENN, the group balances their uneasy search for identity with a confident presentation. It’s an ambitious record that still leaves room for mischief.
Leading the charge is songwriter and vocalist Leona Farrugia, who draws on the alienation that comes with being an outsider to examine the search for identity. “Rohmeresse” begins on a deadpan group chorus (“I wanna stay in all day, I wanna sleep in all day, all day!”), then shifts into wordless, exploratory prog rock. On the chorus of “Heloise,” Janelle Borg incorporates downtuned nu-metal guitar, drummer Sofia Rose Cooper borrows from math rock, and bassist Leanne Zammit leans into ’70s prog, while Farrugia’s howls of romantic obsession channel Karen O and Sue Tompkins simultaneously. Unexpected touches like the clave accent on “A Muse (In Limbo)” or the birdbrained zoneout “Le Saut du Pigeon” play like endearing inside jokes, relieving the musical tension. It’s undoubtedly a studio record, but one with the chaotic energy of an informal jam.
On less dense songs, there’s less to hide behind, and the straightforward approach produces more mixed results. “Days and Nights,” led by Zammit’s snaking bassline, is an old-fashioned rocker about contemporary uncertainty, with a great line about “strolling aimlessly with a heightened desire to survive.” “A Reprise (That Girl)” is all-out dance-punk complete with handclaps and deadpan sprechgesang, where satirical judgements about social-media influencers give way to a larger proclamation: “Death upon the mundane!” But while “Rohmeresse” invokes French New Wave director Éric Rohmer by name, the lyrics could fit any filmmaker known for depicting modern ennui.
ĠENN’s frenetic, jagged riffs and discursive arrangements are as arresting as those of any band working in the same space. Great as the bluster sounds, though, its purpose is not always clear. There are moments of deeper insight (about the way capitalism bleeds over into relationships on “The Merchant Of,” or the solace to be found in peeling potatoes on “Rohmeresse”), but it’s never revelatory in the same way as the band’s best arrangements. Unum still covers an impressive amount of ground in 40 minutes: ĠENN have a knack for embedding accessible hooks and silly musical details within complex and unconventional structures. There are worse foundations to build upon.