Lifeguard have a spry, freewheeling, and continuously evolving sound, emblematic of the scene that birthed them. The Chicago trio met as members of the self-declared “Hallogallo Kids,” a loose constellation of local teenagers who attended classes at School of Rock and the Old Town School of Folk Music. Lifeguard built up their repertoire by playing live together, letting improvisations take shape as songs. Before the pandemic, they met on weekends so one member could attend high school out of state and released a 10-minute jam, “Tin Man,” recorded in a basement. On their debut duo of EPs for Matador, Dressed in Trenches and Crowd Can Talk (initially released last year by Born Yesterday), Lifeguard capture the kineticism of their live show, pushing their instruments to their limits without sacrificing melody.
All between the ages of 16 and 18, the members of Lifeguard are already seasoned musicians with deep connections in the city’s DIY scene. Drummer Isaac Lowenstein has performed with his sister, Penelope, in the jangly noise pop group (and fellow Matador signees) Horsegirl. The father of vocalist and bassist Asher Case is FACS frontman Brian Case, who also played in now-defunct Chicago rock acts like Disappears and the Ponys. Vocalist and guitarist Kai Slater makes music concurrently with fellow Hallogallo Kids in Dwaal Troupe and publishes the Hallogallo zine, an unofficial guide to an ever-expanding scene that also includes newer acts like Friko and Post Office Winter. While having a father in a successful indie rock band isn’t exactly a golden ticket—“I always tell Asher the only thing I can give you is this record collection and this advice,” Brian Case told Talkhouse in 2019—it granted the band access to the city’s rich musical history. Not every tweenaged trio, after all, records their debut at Electrical Audio with the engineer who once recorded Jim O’Rourke.
For 2022’s Crowd Can Talk and this year’s Dressed in Trenches, the three returned to Electrical Audio, this time with engineer Mike Lust, and doubled down on improvisation as a writing tool. “We started realizing that when we would play shows, the songs would kind of just take different shapes,” Slater said. The result is controlled chaos: On “Fifty Seven,” Lowenstein adroitly carries the band through a series of rhythmic change-ups; by the end, the gnarled knot of cymbals and guitar in the coda barely resembles the tight snare hits of its intro.
Things get even looser on their 2023 EP: For the first minute, “Ten Canisters (OFB)” crackles with the feedback and one-off drum fills of a band warming up, before taut guitar chords come crashing in. Lifeguard play confidently with atonality, wielding it like a weapon on the foreboding “Shutter Shutter,” and as a foil to their more pop-forward instincts. On “17-18 Lovesong,” Case’s monotone speak-singing establishes dissonance before Slater’s wistful counter-harmonies take hold. It can be tempting to draw comparisons to Case’s dad in FACS, but while the bands overlap in their post-punk sensibilities and British-leaning vocal inflections, Lifeguard cull from a wide avant garde lineage. It’s easy to hear Chicago’s Shellac and the Jesus Lizard in Slater’s screeching guitars, and unsurprisingly for a scene that takes its name from a Neu! song, there’s a heavy Krautrock influence in their motorik basslines.
Lifeguard’s dynamic is a constant power play: On “Typecast,” it’s hard to tell if the bass or drums are leading the charge, but Slater’s vocals meet the rhythm in the middle, marching forward with his unmodulated vocals. Lyrics are secondary; filled with coded acronyms, the words are more sign than signal, a mere shape for Case and Slater’s barking to take. It’s hard to parse more than loose vowels and taut consonants on songs like “Alarm,” but pay attention to every word and you’ll miss the point. As their screams grow louder on the closest thing to the song’s chorus, they become another layer of noise, building on Lowenstein’s percussion to an emotional crescendo that seems to come from all directions.
The band walks a thrilling tightrope between abrasion and melody throughout these EPs. Even in the harshest moments, songs retain a central logic, as when “New age (I’ve got a)” gallops from feedback into a surprisingly straightforward rock song, its main guitar motif reminiscent of more pop-leaning groups like Bully or the Beths. Case and Lowenstein bonded over a shared love of Tortoise when they were 11, and much like those Thrill Jockey legends, they’ve carved out their own community playing loud, polyrhythmic rock in Chicago. Combining post-punk’s propulsive rhythms with progressive rock’s winding melodies, Lifeguard channel the verve and manic energy of making art with like-minded peers and the rush of sharing your bespoke musical world.