Release Date: Nov 5, 2013
Record label: ATO
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter
Despite the trauma of frontman Tim Smith's decision to leave the band late last year, after an abortive attempt to follow up 2010's The Courage of Others, Antiphon finds Texans Midlake picking up largely where they left off, with guitarist Eric Pulido now handling vocals. There are certainly nods to the schism: the soaring Aurora Gone seems to reference a separation and the title of tempestuous instrumental Vale presumably isn't a reference to Stoke-on-Trent's lesser-known football team. Yet despite the undercurrents of melancholia, Antiphon is another impeccably realised meld of bucolic 70s folk and radio-friendly soft rock, as warm and assured as it is adventurous.
Midlake already had the bulk of their fourth long-player in the can when lead vocalist and songwriter Tim Smith announced that he was leaving the mercurial Lone Star State indie rockers to start a new project. Smith's shape-shifting songwriting style and idiosyncratic voice guided the band through three very different-sounding records, so it should come as no surprise that 2013’s aptly named Antiphon (a short sentence sung or recited before or after a psalm or canticle), which finds guitarist Eric Pulido at the helm, is both an invocation of past digressions and a stylistic leap of faith. Less heady than 2010’s English folk-imbued Courage of Others, yet retaining its overcast, Fleet Foxes-meets Meddle-era Pink Floyd ambience, Antiphon sounds more like the work of a band and less like the fleshed-out audio installations of a bandleader.
There is an instability at the heart of Midlake's new album, a roiling, shifting quality that deftly conveys the circumstance of its making. The Texans were working on other songs entirely when founding frontman Tim Smith decided to leave the band; guitarist Eric Pulido has taken over as singer-songwriter, and though neither his voice nor his lyrics are distinctive, that blandness proves a blessing. Whereas Smith made Midlake's last album, 2010's The Courage of Others, turgid with anxiety and a desire for isolation, Pulido gives each musician space to breathe, search and stretch.
Midlake's brave new world is but seconds old before Eric Pulido makes the important decision not to emulate departed frontman Tim Smith, dodging a potentially fatal trap in the process. Smith was Midlake's MVP, his dulcet, occasionally haunting tones elevating the Texans above their contemporaries. Could tracks like 'Roscoe' and 'Head Home' connect so strongly without him? It's a question that Midlake will discover the answer to in time.
Denton, Texas’ Midlake is not a band to shy away from ambition. At least since the release of second album The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006), the band’s thematic interests have concerned nothing less than humankind’s place in the world. Like the narratives of Terrence Malick, Midlake’s songs point the mind and the heart to the natural world and the fascination it holds for man, even (or especially) when he feels he’s walking alone.
The departure of Midlake’s singer and chief songwriter Tim Smith in November 2012 begs the question as to just what constitutes the identity of a band. Is it entirely bound up in the personality and style of the lead focal point or is it instead something less definable? In the case of the Denton, Texas group, who decided to carry on with a reconfigured line up, fourth album Antiphon is a record that shows that a band’s identity can survive intact despite personnel upheaval and stylistic change. Antiphon is the sound of Midlake slightly repositioned.
Yes, Tim Smith has left Midlake, and over the course of the band’s excellent last two albums, The Trials of Van Occupanther and The Courage of Others, Tim Smith has kind of been Midlake, his soaring vocals being their kicker and their USP. Midlake have never settled on a defining style, always seeming to be aping their more prominent influences — Fleetwood Mac on Van Occupanther, Fairport Convention on Courage — so that the only defining feature of their sound was that evocative, dominating voice. Taking the wise but nevertheless brave decision to scrap the material they’d written with Smith in the two years before his departure, the remaining members of Midlake wrote, recorded and produced their fourth album, Antiphon, in six months, determined to follow through on their commitment to release new music in 2013 and determined, perhaps, to put their former frontman behind them as soon as possible.
MidlakeAntiphon(Bella Union)Rating: 3 out of 5 stars Listening to Antiphon is like watching someone stargaze. The sense that the band is experiencing something spectacular and profound pervades the album. Yet whatever they’re looking at is never really visible to the listener. Though recently reformed — and apparently invigorated — after the departure of lead singer and songwriter Tim Smith, Antiphon is undeniably a Midlake album.
Midlake’s new album sounds like one of those records that makes Indie music reviewers go all gooey inside, like a teenager who just won a date with one of the cast of One Direction. Probably the one with the fucked up head. You know, the one who looks like his head was subject to a failed nuclear experiment in 1950s Japan; the one who looks like he has a particularly malignant form of hair cancer; the one who literally looks like a Cabbage Patch kid; the one who looks like he went to the barber and said “give me the John Merrick”.
Midlake don’t get enough credit for being ahead of their time. Actually, they don’t get any credit, understandable in light of the Denton, Tex., sextet's antiquated imagery and sepia-drunk sound. But the formula that made The Trials of Van Occupanther a sleeper hit in 2006—bearded indie-folk meets California soft-rock meets Fleetwood Mac at their most glassy-eyed—would likely make it a massive success in 2013.
It used to be that losing a frontman meant losing a band. But that was in the past, and we live in the present, which means Battles can draft in Gary Numan for Tyondai Braxton, Paul McCartney can improbably moonlight as Kurt Cobain and Texan Americana types Midlake can deal with the amputation of singer Tim Smith.Smith flew the coop following 2010’s Fleetwood-ish ‘The Courage of Others’, taking his Jason Lytle lilt and soft rock with him. In his absence, guitarist Eric Pulido stepped up with a voice that’s in the Lytle/James Mercer melodic mould, which he uses to lead the band into the weirdy beardy realm of psych-folk.
When a band loses its chief songwriter and lead singer, they typically either call it quits or change their name. Even if they stay together, it’s likely a relatively lackluster album will follow — like Yuck’s Glow & Behold. Fortunately, none of this happened to Midlake. After Tim Smith left the band last year while recording, the remaining members carried on, writing all new songs, and completely scrapping the Smith-written material.
It's questionable whether or not there has ever been an album released so apropos of a band's name than this. Mid-tempo, middle of the road, and indeed middling, Antiphon nonetheless sounds aquatic and crystalline. Reverb ripples from the shimmering guitars and the percussion splashes pleasantly, but the album never manages to enchant in the manner of the previous album, 2010's folky, psychedelic The Courage of Others.
The opening songs of Midlake’s fourth album provide hope that the Texans have moved out of the atonal dark ages they plundered on 2010’s interminable ‘The Courage Of Others’ and into the modern day – or at least the 1960s, as evinced by the title track’s gauche psychedelic organs and the swaggering bass of ‘The Old And The Young’. But they swiftly slump back into portentous jams made for mourning failed crops, made worse by the ye olde farmhand Yoda-isms of Eric Pulido, now the band’s singer following the departure of Tim Smith last year. “I don’t love anyone but me/I will go no further” and “Many before me saw the peril/ I ignored the error of my way”, he yawns, sounding as lifeless as his poor dead cornfields.
With the surprise announcement that singer and songwriter Tim Smith had left Midlake, a lot of fans wondered what would become of the acclaimed Denton combo. When guitarist Eric Pulido stepped up to the mic, those same fans pondered what the band would sound like without Smith in charge. With Antiphon in hand, the answer is apparent: not much different.
Following the departure of lead singer-songwriter Tim Smith, Midlake could've packed in its legacy of three acclaimed LPs and faded into the hinterland of influences spurring the new millennial resurgence of Seventies folk-rock. Instead, the Denton sextet scrapped its fourth LP and started fresh with guitarist Eric Pulido helming a more democratic process. Antiphon therefore sounds like a band album, solidly Midlake-ian, yet lacks the unexpected turns and adventurousness of a strong vision.