Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2006: Number 6

Brian Blessed is currently appearing at the King's Theatre, Nantwich

It's a bloody odd album, we'll give Owen Pallett that much. From title down, indeed - the lyrics don't seem to have much connection with the titles or the declared theme, and given the declared theme is the eight schools of magic in Dungeons & Dragons you can see why it might not be everyone's first choice. And when you actually play the thing it coalesces into a dizzying mass of emotional wreck delivery, avant-garde classical chamber music arrangements with looped instrumentation and odd cut-ins and deliberately awkward poetics about atheism, death and town life. For someone whose previous album Has A Good Home was a slow-burning collection of elegantly constructed leftfield pop songs it comes as something of a mindfuck. Luckily, once expanded it emerges as a grand folly and an extraordinary one-off for this or any other year.

It may well be that we miss a certain level of subtlety with our lack of D&D knowledge, but as we see it Arctic Circle sets us into the middle of what passes for an album narrative about how we relate to each other and to our own psyches or more accurately the downbeat side thereof, this seemingly about the constructs we erect around ourselves in order to maintain a relationship and the ensuing problems inherent when required to open up. Around it Pallett's violin coldly leads a chamber string quartet into a series of marches and motifs ending in a spiral upwards to a sudden stop. It's these complex arrangements that marks the album out as much as anything, the title track a grand arrangement of martial drums and glissandos around a tale of existential loneliness and This Lamb Sells Condos a ragtime piano-led waltz as Pallett's gentle voice narrates the decline and fall of a marriage ("now his massive genitals refuse to co-operate") that's mildly unnerving well before the children's choir arrive. The construction of the songs, the mix led by pizzicato strings and digital and pedal effects, notably on If I Were A Carp and the way the world-weary I'm Afraid Of Japan gradually disappears into the ether, suggests a kind of half-reality, more politely half-awake atmospherics, only really emerging into the light with Song Song Song's strings gradually emerging from behind tribal drumming. Nothing here is immediate, closest being Many Lives -> 49 MP (we see) and its slight return to offbeat melody led by violin loops, except this time with off-mike choral shouting, that still keeps emotional contact, a demonstration of the ambitious levels of engagement attempted throughout. Through everything - concept, ideas, levels of meaningful encryption, the way everything is built up and fitted together - the reason why your average listener wouldn't just give up and put some proper music on is that it's delivered on a level that maintains an attachment amid a quest for understanding of how and why people have ended up in such states, communicating to the soul in an arch way. That Pallett's giving the album and songs very penetrable titles covering a plausibly impenetrable atmosphere... well, it must just be his idea of a cosmic joke.

LISTEN ON: Arctic Circle
WATCH ON: He Poos Clouds video; This Lamb Sells Condos live with projections
READ ON: You Ain't No Picasso get the details on Pallett's upbringing, atheism and history with fantasy RPGs

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