Smile Politely

Album Review: Bufo Alvarius, Propaganda

Bufo Alvarius is Eric Gross, a C-Uite who has honed his skills across two very different records — 2006’s instrumental seven drops from the wax and 2003’s brash mix of cartoonish, sometimes vulgar hip-hop, Comedy and Tragedy — not to mention a stint in Chicago. Propaganda is a culmination of Gross’s talent so far, a musical collage of hip-hop, electronica, and rock ‘n’roll (varying from lush acoustic layers to more sonically challenging effect-heavy guitar contributions) for good measure, paired with an intense examination of nostalgia.

Not surprisingly, this project’s name comes from the infamous psychoactive Colorado River Toad (aka Bufo alvarius) that secretes hallucinogenic alkaloid “bufotenine”:; this juxtaposition of the natural and the unnatural aptly represents the Bufo Alvarius code of existence. Propaganda finds Gross composing sound musical structures that are laced with a hallucinogenic tone, prompting a strange paradox between the record’s often peaceful sound and the purported concept of the album, which (according to its press release) has “nostalgic undertones which analyze and targets the downfall of America.”

Heavy-handed? Perhaps. That said, it’s these grandiose statements that make Propaganda all the more interesting — particularly as someone who grew up in Urbana, where Gross grew up as well. You can’t help but feel this is where the seeds for his vision of America’s downfall were planted, that Urbana itself is a huge part of this nostalgia. And what’s at the root of Propaganda, beneath the layers of sound that, at times, feel contradictory, is a sort of loneliness that comes, it seems, from being let down by the world around you. We find this in the lyrics, and in the space that exists when all of the schizophrenic elements that add up to Bufo Alvarius meet. We find it in the song titles such as “Growing Pains” and “The Good Ole’ Days.” We find it in the irony of “City Crickets,” a spread of the white noise made by sirens and car alarms and alarm clocks that tells us that nothing is simple and nothing is quiet and, certainly, nothing is natural. And shortly after, the record ends, but not without a secret track that finds Gross listing, A-Z, sans the convolution of the music, in a pure and clear form, a number of the elements that contribute to the complicated problems of nostalgia: the conflict between growing up and contemporaneity, of then and now.

Composed by Gross with the help of C-U musicans present and past (Lynn O’Brien, Gabe Davis, Nathan Holley, Chad Hoover, Cary Steinman and Josh Cruzan all make appearances, to name a few), Propaganda is the kind of eerie homegrown record whose sound won’t be for everyone but whose message speaks loudly beyond the music. Is it a record about growing up or being grown-up? The only correct answer is both: You can’t have one without the other.

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