Lungfish had been together for 13 years, and some wear and tear was staring to show. Compared to previous peaks, Necrophones felt subdued, at times even tired, as if the Baltimore quartet was walking where it used to sprint. Heard in vacuum, their repetitive post-punk was still solid, and their hard-won personality still shone through. But that personality was also a bit of a curse, because anyone interested in Lungfish knew what they were capable of, and would quickly judge them by that standard - especially because one of their best albums, The Unanimous Hour, was released just the year before.
If hearing Necrophones in a vacuum was tough then, it's pretty much impossible now that Dischord has released A.C.R. 1999. Recorded in a 1999 session with Craig Bowen at Baltimore's A.C.R. studios, it includes six songs that were later re-made for Necrophones, heard here in sharper, more muscular form. More significantly, where Necrophones darted around in ways both good and bad, this sounds like the work of a single, honed band with a single, committed vision. Not coincidentally, A.C.R. 1999 is more visceral and more live-sounding - you can easily imagine Lungfish breaking a sweat and commanding a crowd with these churning tunes.
The heightened flow is clear immediately. "Eternal Nightfall", which played as a moody instrumental near the end of Necrophones, works better here as an opening warm-up for the calisthenics to come. From there the album hews to constant forward motion, varied in tempo but unwavering in energy. The songs that didn't end up on Necrophones are the most energetic: "Symbiosis" boasts a weight-lifting rhythm and urgent Daniel Higgs vocal, and "Screams of Joy" follows with almost exactly the same combination.
Such consistency may be why there are few transcendent moments on A.C.R. 1999. But there are also no letdowns, and more memorable than any individual song is Lungfish's workmanlike, near-religious devotion to their music. That's most apparent in Higgs' lyrics, whose simple, repetitive lines are drenched in allegorical imagery. "The shifting sands/ Of the eroding coast/ whisper Holy Ghost," he croons during "I Will Walk Between You". In "Symbiosis", he strips things down further, singing just four lines-- "The Christ is sucked/ At the devil's breast/ The devils is suckled/ At the Christ's breast"-- while a cyclical melody mimics his conceptual loop.
That kind of streamlined efficiency persists throughout A.C.R. 1999, bringing to mind something Higgs said a year before this material was recorded. "We'd like to do as much as we can do with the same old instruments we've been using," he told Baltimore City Paper. "There's a temptation to bring in all kinds of crazy new sounds but ultimately, we'll stick with the guitars and drums." On Necrophones that hardline began to sound like a fault, but on A.C.R. 1999 Lungfish show once again how stubbornness can be a virtue.