Friday, February 24, 2012

Album Review: of Montreal - Paralytic Stalks

of Montreal mastermind Kevin Barnes has always been a risk taker. He has released new music every year since of Montreal’s 1997 debut, Cherry Peel, and no two releases have been alike. It’s been an unpredictable journey seeing how the band evolves from release to release. Paralytic Stalks is their 11th studio album and finds Barnes working in a more collaborative environment with Zac Cowell, who performs the woodwinds and the brass instruments on the record, and Kishi Bashi, who created the string arrangements. At the same time, this is his most personal and confessional release to date – almost to a painful degree. Previous albums had him channel feelings through his fictitious persona Georgie Fruit; but on this record, we have him directly confessing feelings of depression, anxiety, and paranoia.

The best way to approach this album is to understand where the material is coming from. Thankfully, Barnes has given numerous interviews and even provided a track-by-track analysis. By pressing play, you are asking Kevin Barnes how he is doing. Instead of the typical canned response, he gives a full-blown existential rant that is both unnerving and endearing. If unprepared, it may come as quite a shock to your system.

of Montreal seem ready to rock more than ever on opener “Gelid Scent”. The song builds to a bombastic swirl of psychedelic guitar shredding and is far removed from the disco-funk of their last album, False Priest. This record leans more towards the schizophrenic dissonance of Skeletal Lamping. If one were to try and pinpoint a specific place in their catalog where this effort falls, it is somewhere between that album and Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?. “Spiteful Intervention” brings back some of the quirky danceable pop from the latter. The twist is the menacing lyrics with dark confessions like “I spend my waking hours haunting my life / I made the one I love start crying tonight / And it felt good / Still there must be a more elegant solution.”

“Dour Percentage” is the single and finds Barnes channeling the best of David Bowie. It is instrumentally rich and lyrically sharp. “Malefic Dowery” is the shortest song, yet it features perhaps the strongest songwriting which is no doubt indebted to The Beatles. It serves as a welcome comedown from the raucous “We Will Commit Wolf Murder”. It also features one of the standout lyrical gems where Barne’s vocals take stage front and center revealing "Once more I turn to my crutch for counsel and it won't disappoint me.” There are many of these magnificent exposing moments to be found throughout.

“Ye, Renew the Plaintiff” kicks off the four through composed songs that close the record. This is where the listener really has to strap in and commit to the material. The track is the most engaging on the record. It begins with authoritative guitar licks and urgent vocals bordering on screams. The second half introduces a flute vamp before breaking into a jam of woodwinds and horns. “Wintered Debts” is no less captivating with an intro that brings about Nick Drake comparisons before the song deconstructs into fluttering piano and a winding instrumental.

The record takes a misstep after its two most fascinating songs. “The Exorcism Breeding Knife” is an avant-garde noise collage that sounds like the soundtrack to your worst nightmare. It’s not exactly the kind of song you are going to want to hear over and over again. Thank god, the bright bouncy beat that opens “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission” brings the record back to down earth. This final track showcases several different movements within the song and has a distinct modern classical flair to it. It is a 13 minute long decent into madness. “Every time I listen to my heart, I just get hurt” Barnes declares before an eruption of atonal synthesizers. This is him putting it all out there for the world to see.

The sequencing of the record is questionable as it continually asks more of the listener as it goes on. Paralytic Stalks is going to be a challenging listen even for the ordinarily adventurous music enthusiast. The good news is that it gets more rewarding with each spin. Once you are able to get a grasp on some of these songs, they really take you in. If you are working through some personal issues in your life, you are going to lock right into this one. Barnes himself has stated, “With this record, I'm not really trying to be commercial, I'm trying to be expressive.” The majority of the record he presents dark and tormented songs sprinkled with bright psychedelic melodies with a chilling after effect. It may seem a bit pretentious but it is too revealing to be so. I have to recommend that everyone at least give this one a bit of your time and see where it takes you. You may be pleasantly surprised.

3.5 / 5.0

Favorite Track: “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff”

of Montreal will be performing at Paradise Rock Club on April 1st with Lonely Dear and Kishi Bashi.

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