Cymbals Eat Guitars is the Platonic ideal for a rock band. The New Jersey quartet’s performance at Swedish American Hall this past Saturday was everything that rock and roll should be, straddling a balance between anthemic grandeur and a punk urgency. Project mastermind Joe D’Agostino is an emphatic bandleader, and one of the most compelling voices in indie rock today. His voice is jagged, but melodiously so — producing a tone forcefully blunt, yet endearingly empathetic. He often sings as if he’s choking on a jawbreaker, pushing out the depths of his soul through a pained growl.
His intensity as a lead singer was only amplified by his athleticism as a frontman. Just on set opener “Place Names” alone, D’Agostino delivered a raging solo while swaying his leg like a childhood swing set, bent his jaw in nearly perpendicular angles to sear through soaring harmonies, and contorted his legs into pretzels while roaring into the crowd. His approach was more kinetic than technical, his fist slamming into the strings drawing out a bruised timbre that overshadowed the actual notes.
The animated energy was not unwarranted, because Cymbals Eat Guitars is a brutal, bleary behemoth of a band. “Warning,” a song I’ve air-guitared endlessly to over the past two years, was awe-inspiring: guttural, but graciously so. D’Agostino smacks down on his lyrics like he’s clearing syllables for batting practice, with the band egging him on with propulsive musical firecrackers from behind. They later proved they could slow things down without losing any impact on the billowing “Mallwalking,” its enclosure of toms and a “Come As You Are”-aping guitar outro a dreamy pseudo-ballad relative to the band’s prior standards.
Then on “Laramie,” the penultimate song for the evening, D’Agostino switched out his belligerent bellow for a simmering croon. The LOSE standout’s ballroom romp and oceanic sparkle allowed for a moment of gentle rest after the previous dozen rippers, before a second-half upswing that reintroduced the band’s pummeling stride for a welcome return. It was a triumphant conclusion, ending with a blitzkrieg of a tantrum that saw D’Agostino push his guitar into the faces of the front row before slamming it on the ground to wrestle as many moaning sounds from the instrument as he could.
He then picked up his guitar and began prepping for another song as the rest of the band left the stage and the amps behind him continued to violently murmur. Yet after a few moments of confused fiddling, D’Agostino turned to the audience and revealed with a surprised levity that he had actually just broken his guitar on the last song. While normally the set would have ended with a solo send-off, D’Agostino reinvited his band back to serenade the audience with a soaring rendition of Pretty Years closer “Shrine.”
Like most of the band’s catalog, there’s a nostalgic glint to “Shrine” that feels tethered to a distinct era and geography, yet holds enough depth to transcend all ties. The band’s performance on Saturday nodded to each of the past few decades, while also maintaining a contemporary identity rooted in fourth-wave emo and east coast indie. Their multifaceted approach perhaps most alludes to the epic call of Springsteen bent to the fuzzy aggression of the Clash, yet the band paints with a wider color palette than either. They’re unique, but evocatively so, and right now they are doing rock music better than anyone else.