O Emperor - Vitreous (Big Skin)
There have been a few really good Irish albums released of late which I've reviewed over on WeAreNoise and I'm going to repost here. First up, O Emperor with their second album. They are five lads from Waterford but who have been living in Cork for a number of years. They signed with Universal Ireland for their first album but have taken control themselves with Vitreous. And what a great decision because it's a fantastic record with a load of absolutely killer hooks and tunes on it.
Here's the text.
"Let me put my cards on the table. I was lukewarm about O Emperor until recently. I always thought they were musically accomplished but until now the songs didn’t quite hold up for me. (There might be a story to be told about their experience with a major label for their debut album versus this self-produced follow-up but that’s for another day.) With Vitreous however, the band have torn up the rules relating to the difficult second album by producing an emotionally mature, at times epic, but ultimately sweetly succinct set of songs.
‘Grandmother Mountain’ opens the album with a sumptuous Beach Boys-esque piano progression. However the pastoral idyll is quickly and rudely interrupted by talk of getting back to a “gutbucket bedsit where I can smell the shit in the city air.” This sets the tone for the whole album. There’s a sense of disaffection and disillusionment familiar from 1970s rock, around that time when the wide-eyed idealism of flower power had been well and truly ditched in favour of paranoia and discontent. There’s plenty of reason for feeling that way these days of course.
Similarly ‘Whitener (Part 1)’ begins with harmony falsetto vocals, sounding like Fleet Foxes momentarily, before switching tack ingeniously with clip-clop electronic percussion and later a properly cranky, shredded guitar solo. Regularly throughout the album, beautiful musical ideas are introduced only to be cut off before they take hold – or more precisely, darkened, shaded, given depth.
Other reviewers have mentioned Grandaddy in relation to the album and that is a valid reference to a point, although mainly in terms of tone for my money rather than musical style. A more relevant touchstone in that respect might be Here We Go Magic (‘Brainchild’ has a certain air of the Pigeons album about it) in its creation of a folk/kraut hybrid, the sense of taking folk music out of the hands of the earnest, to pit it against a writerly angst and orchestral tendencies which allow a kind of drifting kosmische sound to develop. And let’s also say Field Music, conceptually at least, in showing how 3-minute pop songs can be stretched to include the restless, forward-seeking innovations of prog rock, without forsaking the pop. In which case we might also have to mention The Beatles, more particularly the period around The White Album, when folk music and the avant garde, classical ideas and rock n roll backbeats made unlikely bedfellows but great quixotic pop music. (The twanging guitar solo on ‘Grandmother Mountain’ is reminiscient of George Harrison from that time.)
Because these are progressive pop songs, in that they go a good way beyond conventional song structures and cram in a wealth of musical ideas in the process. And by Christ does this album have hooks. ‘Whitener (Part 1)’ has several on its own, including a beautiful pulsating synth arpeggio and some crystalline guitar work. In the case of the sublime ‘Brainchild’, we need look no further than the drop dead vocal melody which seems to be falling off a cliff in slow motion.
Contrary to one of the great tenets of prog rock though (thou shalt go on for quite some time), no song here reaches 4 minutes. That’s one of the album’s great strengths I think – while reaching with grand ambition it scores its points concisely and is over before you know it. First single ‘Holy fool’ still takes me by surprise when it ends mid-chorus after two and a half minutes.
Elsewhere second single ‘Contact’ has a fine garage rock stomp to it although there’s still room for its chorus to be lifted magnificently by a buzzing New Wavey keyboard part. The great motorik backbeat of ‘Holy fool’ may have been induced by Ireland’s latterday familiarity with Autobahn-type road infrastructure; whether or which, it sounds like it could chug on magnificently forever. ‘Land of the living’ and ‘Soft in the head’ both have intriguing vocals reminiscient of Harry Nilsson (always a good thing), weary and knowing and enigmatic. The pristine high production values only add to the feeling of being in the presence of classic symphonic pop, while the twisting, turning arrangements are consistently a joy.
And so it ends, in something of an Abbey Road flourish with a sign-off called ‘This is it’, a softly strummed acoustic backgrounded with a tense fog of muted feedback rounded off with another majestic chorus. All done in under 30 minutes. The whole thing sounds very unlike an Irish band. I mean that as a high compliment. There is no discernible precursor for it in Irish terms that I can think of. That makes me even fonder of it. It operates completely on its own terms. It brings a seriousness with it but is never in danger of being po-faced. There’s a poise and conviction about it that’s thrilling. It’s got memorable songs that don’t shy away from complexity. I think it’s an important record. It’s a grown-up pop record and we need more of those. I really love it."
My colleague at WeAreNoise Stephen Purcell also reviewed the band's gig at Bourkes in Limerick recently.
One paragraph of his piece stood out for me, in highlighting the prowess and scope of this band. They really have taken some classic and familiar sounds and given them a series of fresh twists.
Going from twisted psych shrills to twangy hang notes, guitarist Alan Comerford’s palette of sounds and creativity really has to be seen live to be appreciated in full. ‘Minuet’ pays tribute to Holland-era Beach Boys as the band sing in unison “we can still feel” over a stripped down piano progression. When the band deliver their five way harmony, it can be overwhelming. Each voice seems to complement the next as they make even the most complicated of arrangements sound like a walk in the park. The same has to be said of their individual voices and musicianship, each member contributing something unique and unformulaic, something you can see first hand as you watch each member fall in and out of their spots.