I’m always nervous when a band I love announces their next release; I get anxious, thinking that it could be the best one yet, or the one that loses me. This sense of uncertainty is especially present when it’s an eclectic group like of Montreal, who debuted in ’97 with joyful, 60s obsessed twee pop which quickly evolved into overstuffed psychedelic storytelling (The Gay Parade) before becoming the glam-y, funky, schizophrenic soul-punk of Hissing Fauna… and False Priest.
After the solid modern classical experiment that was 2012s Paralytic Stalks, Kevin Barnes (the brains and creative life blood of the band) took a trip to San Francisco to embrace the 60s protest culture and write 2013s tight Lousy With Sylvianbriar.
After another break up with his wife/longtime creative partner Nina Grøttland, he took a trip to New York to gather his thoughts and get a taste of the 70s CBGB art punk scene. “Aureate Gloom” is the result, and it’s a surprisingly logical progression from Lousy With Sylvianbriar, a fun and relatively stripped down record filled with crunchy/clean garage rock guitars (think Television gone disco), live drums, distorted vocals and a plucky bass that keeps the whole thing moving.
“Bassem Sabry” opens the record with a fuzzy noise build that breaks into disco guitars, handclaps and a distorted minimalist synth fittingly ripped right out of Bowie’s “Low.”
Barnes screams “I’m in a dark and violent funk” and he’s got the clavinet and sentimental strings to prove it. Now that they’re free from computers, grids and drum machines, it seems that the band is finally free to mess with tempo and time signatures, dropping beats left and right (a la Pixies) with his “systems of subtraction” found on “Empyrean Abattoir,” a focused krautrock track chock full of melodies, arpeggios and dance floor grooves. Choking down a handful of pills, “Apollyon of Blue Room” has Barnes’ channeling classic Kinks garage rock complete with tight harmonies and a ragged guitar solo. “I’ve been through so many deaths” he says, “I don’t know which name to respond to.” A fitting line for an artist that has shifted styles almost every record.
A crunchy two chord guitar groove, tremolo and a Ringo fill open “Estocadas,” which boasts some of Kevin’s most simple and effective songwriting in years. “Your shifty friend gave you a cactus for a gift/such a stupid offering/what’s it meant to symbolize?” he muses sarcastically, punctuating the image with careless “oh ohs.” It doesn’t break into a huge pop chorus as expected, but remember, this is a rock record (a surprising feat for the pop obsessed indie-funk fiends). In its place, a lilting melody serves as an anti-hook, only coming to a resolve with the words “nature is writhing in her own filth again.” Second time around and the snare drum beats us into a beautiful string interlude which gracefully morphs into a Velvet Underground psycho-drone, complete with a pulsing kick drum, screeching violas and metallic guitar scrapes. This in turn breaks into a noisy post-punk freakout reminiscent of The Fall before bursting into album closer “Like Ashoka’s Inferno of Memory,” a Sabbath-y fuzzed out groove broken up by plinking guitar arpeggios and more stream of conscious. Thankfully, the gritty prog riffs come back one more time before going full 60s pop, complete with banging piano chords, Beatles backup vocals and a tambourine. A fitting way to end the record.
Aureate Gloom is live, raw, distorted and fun, recorded in Texas with the full band in just three weeks. Musically, this gives it a sense of immediacy, but oftentimes Barnes’ abstract, hyper-literate lyrics get in the way of the actual songs. He’s so busy telling us how he feels that he rarely gets the listener to connect emotionally; as usual, this is a rather heady affair. Thankfully, the gritty guitars, live drums and imperfect, overdriven vocals give some the record some guts. Like all of Montreal releases, it’s complex, cluttered and kaleidoscopic, but this time round Kevin Barnes has stripped down the songs and brought guitars to the fore, leaving the vocals to take on a monotone Lou Reed stream of conscious quality. Sadly, there are few sweeping sing-a-long choruses, but again, this is Barnes’ take on overstuffed indie gone art punk.
After 13 records, we’ve come to expect of Montreal to twist our ears with schizophrenic chord changes, out there lyrics and sensational costumes. Aureate Gloom manages to distill our favorite elements while pushing the sound in new directions and displaying an impressive (for Barnes) level of restraint. I just wish he’d put down the Greek mythology and give us a song we can relate to every now and again. Like most of their work, Aureate Gloom takes a couple listens to wrap your head around, but for fans, it’s gritty riffs, killer grooves and witty lyrics will surely merit multiple listens. I’m looking forward to seeing how this stuff translates live and the next direction Barnes chooses to take.
It’s always hard to place an of Montreal record on a number scale since their flaws and self indulgences are exactly what make them special. Thankfully, Aureate Gloom boasts a relatively short run time and never strays too far from the songs, making repeat plays a pleasure.