After two records of chaotic, sprawling displays of fretboard fireworks, Marnie Stern struck the right balance of shredder bombast and relative accessibility on 2010’s self-titled effort. Follow-up The Chronicles Of Marnia (a title that is either bad, or wonderfully bad) continues down that softer and straightforward path, shedding layers of manic guitar work and trimming back the math-rock polyrhythms. As a result, the album feels like a forced housecleaning: It’s tidier, simpler, and more spacious, but a lot of personality has been thrown out in the process. Certainly Stern is under no obligation to deploy her impressive skills if she doesn’t wish to, but the record seems artificially restrained, such that moments in her songs that would typically explode into beautiful tumult are instead rigidly bypassed. Even new drummer Kid Millions of Oneida, doing a serviceable job replacing Zach Hill, comes off as a tad conventional. It would all be understandable if the focus were on more cohesive songwriting, but The Chronicles Of Marnia isn’t a structural or stylistic evolution, either; there’s nothing new in the equation to compensate for all the calculated subtractions.
The album is not a disaster by any means; even dialing back the finger-tapping fury leaves plenty of jagged hooks woven together in technically dazzling interplay. Opening track “Year Of The Glad,” for example, rides a jittery current of high-pitched vocalizations and stabbing guitar that soon pounds with sludgy force. Meanwhile, even poppy cuts such as “Nothing Is Easy” and the abnormally relaxed “East Side Glory” still contain the occasional frenetic aside. The Chronicles Of Marnia is chock full of these reminders of Stern’s instrumental dexterity and flawlessly meticulous execution, but without the intense theatrics, flair, and helter-skelter points of tension and release, it never quite transcends into the thrilling mess that is such a good vehicle for her talents. Stern remains an exceptional musician, and if she’s looking to do something new, there are numerous directions in which she can go without having to muzzle her abilities or curtail innovation.