Chicano Batman’s music has long provided listeners with a palpable sense of atmosphere. The band’s 2017 album, Freedom is Free, succeeded in creating a laid-back, summertime chill. In the words of lead singer Bardo Martinez, Chicano Batman has long been about this aesthetic approach.
On the group’s new album, Invisible People, this aesthetic becomes muddled and mired in uncertainty. The skeleton of the band’s old body of work is present, but it is simultaneously clung to and abandoned. There is an attempt at sonic evolution, but there is also a rigidity in the record’s conformity to previous sounds.
“Color My Life,” the album’s first track, probably offers the best understanding of the different-but-not-quite territory in which the band finds itself entrenched. The classic Chicano Batman groove is here somewhere, but it is buried underneath stunted bass and unenthusiastic vocals. The guitar here sounds like it was grated and squeezed through an amp, uncomfortable in the space it fills. The song leaves the listener unsure of the album’s direction, and that feeling permeates through Invisible People as a whole.
The restrained nature of the guitar and bass is widespread throughout Invisible People. On “Pink Elephant,” the guitar seems as if it’s dying to do more, as it repetitively squeaks out the same riff with little change. The bass, on the other hand, seems to have difficulty making much of an impression at all. On “Blank Slate,” these instruments have more territory to explore, but their presence is muted and drowned out by an overabundance of instrumental noise, impeding on the instruments’ potential impact.
One of the most intrusive sounds throughout the album is the synth. It is obstructive and bold, but doesn’t have room to breathe within the tight confines Chicano Batman traps it in. “Manuel’s Story” captures this conflict, as the constraint of the synth adds a watered-down, cloying sound to the otherwise compelling narrative of the lyrics.
The album’s biggest offenders are “Moment of Joy” and “The Way.” The latter doesn’t know what it wants to be, a sound soup that fails to deliver a distinctive instrument, riff or melody. The percussion blends with everything else and the bass is forgetful. On “Moment of Joy,” the vocals are diluted to almost nothing, stripped of the exuberance and life they should burst with. Lyrics about sunshine and joy are juxtaposed against a murky, opaque mess.
Invisible People isn’t without its successes, and Chicano Batman keeps its head above water when it properly commits, either by rededicating itself to its old sound or by committing to a new one. The catchy, gritty rhythm of “The Prophet” allows the listener to think beyond the overplayed concept of a “prophet for profit” and enjoy the song for its instrumental quality. The same is true for “Bella” and “I Know It.” While not particularly innovative, these tracks at least offer the enjoyable, laid-back sound Chicano Batman is known for. “Polymetronomic Harmony” is likely the best song on the album, carefully and steadily layering sounds on top of one another, rather than shoving them all together like so many other tracks on the album do.
In a way, “Polymetronomic Harmony” demonstrates Chicano Batman’s greatest failing. The band is talented and capable, and yet it so frequently gets in its own way rather than allowing itself to bask in its strengths. There is a desire to dive into new artistic territory, but Invisible People isn’t a dive: It’s a toe dip, overly cautious and restrained.
The album fades out on “Wounds,” a track that offers the best insight into what Invisible People could have sounded like. The song is fresh but familiar, taking the Chicano Batman recipe and adding a few crisp ingredients. It is the final track on a strange and unassuming album. Invisible People passes the listener by, a specter of the LP that could have been.