For bands, a name change might as well spell disaster. While most monikers are thrown together out of desperation or decided on at the last minute (it's generally the least glorious part of the whole playing-music thing), they inevitably become tied to an act's entire identity.
So when an up-and-coming local rock-pop group like Sights & Sages, for example, decides to throw a curveball and abruptly rebrand as Ten Bulls -- well, it effectively means they're starting over at ground zero. Unless you're getting cease and desist letters, why tear down everything you've built thus far?
"The primary reason was to avoid a band name that sounded like a lot of other bands out there -- like the Sights, the Sounds, Sights & Sounds," Ten Bulls frontman Christian Clark told SoundDiego recently. "There was no legal threat pending or anything but we were just cautious because [there are] names that kinda sounded like it.
Perhaps the best way to counteract a name switch is to burst out of the gate with a bang and the release of a new studio album can accomplish just that. But it has to be really good, otherwise the devoted folks that followed over to the new-and-improved venture will just slowly fade away like Homer into bushes.
Thankfully, Ten Bulls not only up the ante from what they delivered as Sights & Sages (their "doubleplus" EP was one of the best local releases of 2017), but their new debut full-length album, “The Physician’s Magician,” is everything a 2.0 reboot should be: harder, better, faster, stronger.
That particular Daft Punk reference is more than appropriate as well, especially since the 11-track record finds the band (which, aside from Clark, is comprised of bassist Jay Sanchioli, drummer Chaz Lamden, and keyboardists Ida Naughton and Sebastian Rizo) settling into a calculated yet lush digital groove not unlike those employed by M83, Passion Pit or those famed, helmeted French DJs. Which isn’t to say "The Physician’s Magician" is dance music -- far from it, in fact (if you’re looking for club bangers, you’ve come to the wrong place). Rather, it’s a synth-and-bass-dominated record with a synthetic skeleton encasing an analog heart.
There are a number of standout tracks -- take "Silk & Polyester," the album’s leadoff, for example. It’s a blissed-out vehicle for an airtight Sanchioli bassline and a drum-machine-esque beat courtesy of (the reportedly human) Lamden. Atmospheric as all get out, songs like "Small Sequences" and "Papaya" are soaring, reverb-drenched journeys into the ether, while songs like the standout "Vicarion" surge along with a muted menace as robotic Clark clones harmonize behind their original.
Indeed, it’s that warm voice that largely keeps "The Physician’s Magician" from losing itself to some kind of austere, detached Windows 98 oblivion -- if there’s a subjective criticism to be leveled here, it’d be that the whole album is almost too sterile, too cold, too perfect. It's not even a real gripe per se (the production on this thing is seriously incredible) but if you didn't know any better, you'd think the thing was constructed by technicians in a sealed laboratory. Sure, it sounds great but does it feel great? There’s a reason why Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood manually wrangles the glitchy beat of "Idioteque" on an old, massive, cantankerous modular synth whenever the band performs it live -- there’s an allure about everything not being in its right place.
Of course, perfection's in the eye/ear of the beholder, and thankfully, every time these tracks start to reach peak Turing test levels, Clark’s vocals come wafting in with a hushed, pained tranquility -- assuring listeners that while the ones and zeroes of shimmering synthesizers may be of the same code that eventually enslaves the entire world, genuine emotion and the beautiful imperfection of humanity simply cannot be replicated.
Bottom line: Could "The Physician’s Magician" possibly serve as musical accompaniment to a dark sci-fi thriller set in a future post-AI-rebellion dystopia? Sure. Is it inarguably one of the best San Diego records of the year? Without a doubt. Most importantly, will it make Ten Bulls fans ask "Sights & Sages who?" Absolutely.
Purchase Ten Bulls' "The Physician's Magician" wherever music is sold or streamed. Go see them at their album release show at Soda Bar on Nov. 30, with Drug Hunt and Downers; follow them on Facebook and Instagram; and visit them online here.