Release Date: Jun 17, 2016
Record label: Razor & Tie
Echoes of Americana can provide quite a lot of sonic comfort food, but a distinctive soundscape, even one of the quality on Oh My God, Charlie Darwin and Smart Flesh, the first two albums by The Low Anthem, is rarely musically nutritious indefinitely. It was the strength of the writing, allied to the production, that marked out these two releases on their original appearance. And within each disc, there were some noteworthy illustrations of a band willing to go beyond the genre expectations.
If psychedelia is an artistic attempt to make sense of altered states of consciousness then The Low Anthem’s latest vision makes The Moody Blues sound like The Mickey Mouse Club. Eleven songs based on a short story written by founding member Ben Knox Miller concerning a group of children whose air hockey table conflagrates, sending them spinning into an alternative universe (bear with) constituting a concept album where time shifts, distant whispers echo through empty corridors and conflicting melodies are woven into one ruddy great nightmare that shouldn’t be listened to in a darkened room, unless you know where all the exits are. Musically it’s a side trip to the shop of horrors: vintage machines crank into life, quasi-punk riffs battle with systems sounds and border guards are caught masturbating behind two way airport mirrors.
The transitional fourth studio outing from the Rhode Island-based indie folk collective led by co-founders Jeff Prystowsky and Ben Knox Miller, Eyeland is the culmination of a nearly five-year journey that began with Prystowsky purchasing and eventually turning Providence's moth-eaten Columbus Theatre into a haven for artists and musicians via a popular recording studio and live concert hall. Lofty, eclectic, and spilling over with ideas, Eyeland effectively puts to bed the bucolic Americana of 2009's Oh My God, Charlie Darwin and the minimalist, Dylanesque troubadour-ism of 2011's Smart Flesh. Instead, Low Anthem mine the surreal narrative and auditory proclivities of early-'70s progressive rock and post-Kid A-era Radiohead, offering up a heady, psych-tinged conceptual piece that's often as knotty and impenetrable as it is thrillingly inventive.
With 2009’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin and follow up Smart Flesh two years later, Rhode Island four piece The Low Anthem established themselves as one of the classiest, most listenable Americana acts around. A deft combination of folk, country and gospel influences that combined the warmth of traditional instruments with innovative recording techniques (notably, Smart Flesh was recorded in a vacant pasta sauce factory, which gave the album its echoing sense of space) they showed above all they are first rate songwriters; the gorgeous, soaring melodies of songs like Oh My God, Charlie Darwin’s title track and To Ohio losing nothing in comparison with more lauded contemporaries like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. What a pity then that after a five year wait, The Low Anthem’s new album Eyeland seems to wilfully sacrifice many of those strengths.
Ostensibly an alt folk combo, Low Anthem has done what few other outfits of their ilk would dare to do, that is, to transition into an experimental ensemble whose latest offerings are flush with ambient noise and all sorts of extraneous effects. They hinted at these tendencies before; their preceding album Oh My God Charlie Darwin was a conceptual piece that detailed the travels and travails of the scientist anthropologist bannered in the title. Still, that effort doesn’t couldn’t possibly prepare one for the strange sounds and atmospheric indulgence that shift and sputter throughout Eyeland overall.