The 300th or so release by Dayton's prolific kings of melody, Isolation Drills finds the one and only Guided by Voices still in fine fighting form. Gone is the self-consciously radio-friendly pop that made their last album, Do the Collapse, a minor disappointment, but just as gone is any hint of the lo-fi sound found on their groundbreaking midperiod releases, which won the band its first and biggest batch of fanatics. This is as it should be, though, for lo-fi would be a step back at this point. With side projects, Bob Pollard solo albums and "unofficial" Guided by Voices releases galore, the hiss-addicted have plenty to satisfy their cravings; let the true new Guided by Voices progress!
Of course, progress for Bob and the boys doesn't mean embracing electronica or kicking out rap-metal. The comparisons used on them in the past are every bit as valid here -- British Invasion, early R.E.M., pastoral prog rock -- but their ability to still sound fresh and excited and forward-thinking after so many songs is nothing short of astounding. Most songwriters would kill to be able to come up with just one vocal melody in their career as catchy as the intro to "Chasing Heather Crazy," but here it's just one highlight among many. Isolation Drills does differ from other releases in the Guided by Voices canon in that it features some of the most straight-ahead rocking the band has done in quite some time, from the bass-driven opener, "Fair Touching," through the glam-snotty "Want One?" to what could and should be the new theme song for That '70s Show, "Glad Girls." The song's chorus is so catchy ("Hey-ey glad girls/only wanna get you high"), there are probably still people in St. Louis humming it after hearing it once live six months ago.
In addition to the arena-rock hooks and tenderly surreal balladry for which Guided by Voices is known, the album also distinguishes itself by sounding almost angry at times. Guitarist Doug Gillard in particular seems to have set his amp for "menacing," as evidenced by the dark main riff of "Skills Like This" and his furious solos on "Pivotal Film." All in all, Isolation Drills finds Guided by Voices in a strange transitional period, having shed their "hipsters only" past and failed at their shot at mainstream success (was anyone really surprised?). They don't seem to be targeting any specific one of their old fans with this album. If Isolation Drills is the sound of Guided by Voices, phase 3, though, let the bandwagon reboarding begin.