Close Encounters are a motley crew strung together from Burlington-based groups past and present. Guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist Justin Barton fronted Holy Smokes and once belonged to funk-jam outfit Squimley and the Woolens. Guitarist-vocalist Charlie Hill and drummer Fabian Gaspero-Beckstrom met Barton in January 2015 when their band, Bison, played with Holy Smokes at Queen City hot spot Nectar's.
The now-defunct Holy Smokes drew from alternative and post-rock influences, while Bison still gig around town billing themselves as "nomadic disco-punk." Hill's roommate, bassist Sam Ghazey, soon found his way into the mix. The four ganged up last summer to form Close Encounters. While their sound is not exactly the stuff of science fiction, Close Encounters' debut four-song EP, All Too Human, does explore alienation, both from self and from society.
The title track opens with metallic, bright guitar riffs that belie a bleak message: disillusionment with material wealth and the rat race. The lyrics could be ripped from Sen. Bernie Sanders' income-inequality playbook: "Tempted by life's greatest decadence / He forgets dreams of the simple life / And flies off toward big city lights / Gets off at the station Penn / Strolls on down the street called Wall."
Remnants of Holy Smokes' driving drumbeats and Bison's darker side are present on the grungy second cut, "Iron Age." Particularly in its catchy, echo-laden vocals, the tune has its moments. But it also exemplifies Close Encounters' tendency to abruptly slide into distorted, drawn-out instrumentation near the end of a song. These transitions often feel jarring and overdone.
Up next is "Passed On." While sonically a tad out of place, it quietly gestures to Burlington's jam-band legacy with plenty of guitar grooves.
The jazzy seven-minute closer, "Stolen," slows things down. Way down. Hill's languid vocals slowly build to a crescendo of angst. "Give me a reason / To believe that I'm not responsible," he sings. Then, "Yeah, how do you feel it / You say it's unjustifiable / Cause I'm a little weary about what you know / Trying to stay out of what I can't control / If there's something you need to say to me / Yeah, I'm dying to hear it / Yeah, I'm dying to hear it."
All Too Human's strength is in its lyrical exploration of a young person's place in what feels like an increasingly messed-up world. Instrumentally, it seems like Close Encounters are still searching for solid footing. Experimentation is fine for a debut EP, especially one so slim. But it would be gratifying to hear them lock in a sound. Close Encounters are simultaneously seeking connection and probing the nature of separation. The accompanying anxieties, fears and, yes, even hopes could be fertile ground for follow-up albums.
Close Encounters' debut EP All Too Human is available at SoundCloud and iTunes. Close Encounters play at Nectar's in Burlington on Tuesday, March 22.