One Tunguska, Two Tunguska, Three

Cymbals Eat Guitars‘s first record arrived on the front end of the 90s indie revival, enjoying popularity for its declaration that those era- and genre-defining classics like Perfect from Now On were timeless at last and steeped in artful approaches worth revisiting. Their second offering, however–released once we were deep into the 90s rehash–similarly went deeper into the alternative/indie genesis, unabashedly referencing everything from Modest Mouse’s thrash-disco to Rainer Maria’s woe-is-emo to Soundgarden’s alterna-prog. The challenging transition coincided with an effort to smooth their songwriting approaches into an even more impressionistic smear of poetic and sonic musings, blurring the already-barely-there verse-chorus-verse delineations that made their first album just welcoming enough to the general indie-pop audience. What many may have dubbed a sophomore slump rewarded immensely with many listens.

From the beginning, they’ve have an incredible knack to take one or two parts and recreate them with either slight or extreme variations in the tonality, atmosphere, pace, or intensity to produce an organically developing piece that is both familiar and discombobulating. I often come away from their music with that same feeling we note in occasions of deja vu: “I’ve been here before, but it’s different. I’m unsettled.” That unsettled feeling is one I prize most when listening to music, because I know that something’s changed, that I’ll never think about music the same, that someone has shifted the grid I’m used to operating in. Those are transcendent moments. “Another Tunguska,” one of the highlights of the album, appears to address just such moments:

Cymbals Eat Guitars – Another Tunguska

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I love bands that make me do research. What the hell is a Tunguska? Like Ghostface says in the Cuban Linx dyed Wallabees skit: Boom…

According to Wikipedia, in 1908, something exploded in northern Russia, leaving 80 million trees across 2,150 square kilometers stripped and knocked over, but no trace of whatever produced the explosion. It was, apparently, “the largest impact event in recorded history,” 1,000 times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, sending a shock wave that “knocked people off of their feet and broke windows hundreds of kilometers away,” and producing for days afterwards glowing night skies visible across Asia and Europe. Carl Sagan is live at the scene:

Cosmos. Love it.

So we had a title. And now we have a Tunguska. But another Tunguska? Thank goodness singer Joseph D’Agostino provides lyrics, line breaks or no:

I emerged as if through a narrowed eye into lashes of white sun from your apartment and pollen clouds held absent sound. In gutted buildings we pray. Bridges and causeways curl fast again like slap bracelets. And the skyline resets to a bare, hushed wilderness. I worship the day of the invisible wave: Then, a stream of revenants surged outward like prominences from the sun. 1927: an explosion, another Tunguska. And at once I was flat on my back. My skateboard rolled on down the hill. The congregating deer stood stock still in the corridor of manicured lawns. Remember you and I would get so high we’d pass out with our shoes on, first light through leaves? This was back when my smoke would juke and stutter in the highway crossbreeze.

Okay, so that’s all fabulous imagery. But at this point in our detective story, I’m confused: 1927 is not 1908. What happened in 1927? Well, the Equitable Gas explosion happened. As I understand from what I can find, on November 14, 1927 in Pittsburgh, workmen tried to repair a leak in the largest of three natural gas storage tanks belonging to the Equitable Gas company–and they tried to do it with acetylene torches (!!!). The five million cubic foot tank exploded, which in turn set off a four million cubic foot tank, which in turn set off a 500,000 cubic foot tank. One of these three, a twenty-story-tall tank, actually shot into the air, where it exploded above ground, spraying steel shrapnel across the city below. Yikes. Buildings in the 20 miles surrounding shook from the blast; those nearby were leveled. 26-28 people died.

And there we have our history lesson.

With regard to the rest of the lyrics, these references are intended to associate a powerful poetic moment of insight with the force of large-scale physical disasters. At the outset, just as light travels faster than sound, D’Agostino describes a moment of emergence in which he feels as if he’s walking into the world through an opening eye; the visible experience is followed by the kind of pregnant silence that precedes the shock waves of large explosions. I imagine scenes from blockbuster films in which everything slows and hushes as light fills the screen in the seconds before the THX sub-frequencies rumble in and Maxell you in your stadium seating. And in that surging anticipation, D’Agostino worships “the day of the invisible wave.”

When it hits, D’Agostino’s moment, and/or the memory of the moment, hits him with the force of the Tunguska event and the Equitable Gas explosion, and before he knows it, he’s been knocked off of his feet. In the aftermath, as if he doesn’t have a clue where he is or why he’s there, he looks to the natural world looking back at him, a feedback loop of confusion. The song winds down in a coda of associated memory, subtly pointing us back to the beginning lyric’s light and highways as the track disperses like the imagery of tobacco whisping off against the sky.

It’s a beautiful capsule of impressionistic story-telling. And that’s to say nothing of the appropriately sunny tune that guides it, pressing onwards and upwards with the narrative, breathing in flux to the interplay of outward observation with inward reflection, impeccably conjoined with every turn of the lyrics. It’s a marvelous composition that’s one of my favorite songs of last year. That it takes some unpacking to get the most out of it–all the better. Is insight a disaster? Kind of. But that’s a good thing. Thanks dudes.