Deerhunter's first album, the self-titled release from Atlanta-based Stickfigure, was a cacophonous, messy, punk-driven record that banged and pulsated along in the shock and anger after bass player Justin Bosworth's sudden death in 2004. By the time the band set about recording their second album, however, they had added another guitarist, one who focused more on twisting and mechanizing sound, and had calmed down considerably. Because of this, much of Cryptograms meanders about in the experimental realm, where swells and layers matter more than melody or structure. It does make for contrast, this ebb-and-flow against the greater discord of the sung pieces, but these instrumentals don't do enough to actually mean anything. From the "Intro" to "Red Ink" to "Providence" there's a kind of tired consistency played out in the delayed guitar that works to make the record almost commonplace, despite its avant-garde leanings. The more "conventional" tracks, those with words, decipherable or not (generally not), work a little better. More interesting and complex musically, they weave guitar and basslines with driving chords and heavy drums, the same energy before spent on reverb now given to rhythm and composition. Lyrics, courtesy of frontman Bradford Cox, are sparse but intentional, like the repeated muffled yell of "there was no sound" in the title cut, or the echoed call of "I was the corpse that spiraled out" in the nearly eight-minute long "Octet." Cryptograms is pained, sometimes angry, sometimes reflective (and once, in the out-of-place indie pop "Strange Lights," oddly content) music that aims for the provocative and the esoteric. Occasionally, like in the wonderfully spastic "Lake Somerset," Deerhunter successfully accomplish that, but more often than that they overreach and end up hitting something much more ordinary, predictably "experimental" choices in a genre that's supposed to be anything but. Yes, there's a greater recognition of the importance of maturity and structure and intellectualism here, but it's overshadowed by a heightened sense of gravitas and a concern for the unconventional that ends up dulling whatever it is they may have created.
AllMusic Review by Marisa Brown