New Noise: Keane; Of Montreal
by David Gao
With its latest album, “Perfect Symmetry,” British piano-rock band Keane has departed from its universally loved and evocatively sad, yet beautiful, piano-led sound. Keane has evolved towards a more upbeat ’80s sound with wavering, high vocals from lead singer Tom Chaplin similar to those of The Killers.
“Spiralling,” the first single, starts off the album. The ’80s style synthesizer sets the tone as more carefree and high-spirited, which is accented by an uncharacteristic and borderline annoying “woo!” in between verses. Immediately after, Keane shows that it has not lost its ability to create quality melodies with the most well-rounded song on the record, “The Lovers are Losing.” The second single sports an ’80s influence as well, with a bouncy beat and abstract lyrics about dreams of the future and how they correlate with how things are now.
One of the qualities that made Keane unique as a band is its atypical lead piano. On its debut album, “Hopes and Fears,” hit songs “Somewhere Only We Know” and “Everybody’s Changing” propelled the band into prominence. Keane managed to appeal to the masses without a guitar (electric or acoustic), using straight piano and an electric bass very effectively.
In contrast, its second album, “Under the Iron Sea,” features keyboards that are distorted to sound like guitars. While the band still largely relies on piano in “Perfect Symmetry,” live performances of “Spiralling” confirmed the fears of piano lovers everywhere by featuring guitar in a complementing role, largely nullifying one of Keane’s specialties.
However, for people who could care less about the absence of guitars, the album continues strongly with “Better Than This,” which features a fun high range and contagious beat.
Just when there appeared to be no signature songs reminiscent of Keane’s old glory, title track “Perfect Symmetry” captures the absolute essence of the U2-influenced trio. Beautifully simple piano melodies start off the track, evoking a calming yet haunting musical journey akin to Coldplay. The five-minute-plus song does not stop there; it gradually builds up into a musical epiphany, with the three band members singing the chorus in unison. The message is clear: while Keane has expanded its musical style, it hasn’t lost its core musicianship, which made the band popular in the first place.
The second half of the album doesn’t necessarily warrant a skip on iTunes, but it doesn’t feature any outstanding songs either. Aside from a rather strange bit featuring a French guy muttering something about immersing himself in the sea in “Black Burning Heart,” the second half of the album is good for some beat-tapping and head-nodding as listeners fully immerse themselves in Keane’s new dynamic. If the first five songs establish Keane’s new mantra and the main soul of “Perfect Symmetry,” the next five fully entrench them.
The real icing on the cake, though, is the final track “Love is the End.” Right away, the charming piano melody establishes the ballad as a classic lighter-waving, slow-burning ballad, once again creating that rare combination of sadness and happiness, a fitting end to the album.
Most of “Perfect Symmetry” may be disappointing for fans of Keane’s original piano-rock ballad sound. But like all artists, Keane desires that challenge of expanding itself, by exploring different musical mediums that it feels will serve as a positive influence. While the new sound featured in “Perfect Symmetry” will probably never replace Keane’s bread and butter sound, listeners willing to give it a chance will find that musical talent prevails, even if it veers from the rigid known track that the public is accustomed to.
Of Montreal — “Skeletal Lamping”
by Shapan Debnath
Of Montreal used to be a simple pop band. Its first three albums are steady, often centered around a concept or a story. The turn of the decade sparked change in the band’s style, slowly moving away from its traditional pop approach and shifting more into psychedelics and songs with funkier beats. The progression was seen as admirable and arguably the most ambitious of all the bands in the pop-friendly Elephant Six Recording Company.
“Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?” marked a great success for the group, hitting its stride in the dance music that leader Kevin Barnes wanted to make while retaining much pop sensibility. With alienation from yesteryear creeping up, the band’s new record, “Skeletal Lamping,” abandons the cohesive pop structure that built the band’s reputation and replaces it with a frantic translation of Barnes’ fascination with dance and sexual boundaries.
The album constantly moves at an eccentric pace. “Nonpareil of Favor” starts off swiftly, only to degrade itself after a minute into distraught contemplation, and then shifting to aimlessly banging chords. Even when the band catches stride, it loses its grasp on it. “Wicked Wisdom” has Barnes reciting, “When we get together / It’s always hot magic” while the band subtly layers the song. But once you feel the band is getting into a groove, the song will harshly transform, like a DJ recklessly compiling a mash-up. This takes away from the idea of being a band and writing organized songs, as further demonstrated by “An Eluardian Instance.”
When the frenzied pace isn’t turning you off, Barnes’s obnoxious lyrics do the trick. “Gallery Piece” sounds like he’s purging every thought he’s had to a psychiatrist, to the point where the music becomes secondary. “For Our Elegant Caste” would be a solid song if it wasn’t structured around some ridiculous lyrics. The album’s title was named after dissecting Barnes’ head, but after a while, it’s hard to see if he’s taking the idea seriously.
However, there are solid moments on the newly released album. “Touched Something Hallow” is short, but reminds fans why this band was often compared to the Beatles during its early days. The bassline in “Triphallus, To Punctuate!” is hypnotic, the majority of the instrumentation in “Beware Our Nubile Miscreants” is mesmerizing and “Mingusings” is a lot of fun once you get lost in it.
“Id Engager” is actually a very catchy single and should be a selling point; instead, it’s the album’s closer and ends the record abruptly. “Plastis Wafers,” the album’s longest song, is indicative of the album itself. It starts off with an enjoyable beat that is excessively manipulated until it dissolves into nothing.
It’s not like a pop band can’t experiment without enjoying success. Plenty of Of Montreal’s Elephant Six counterparts have tinkered with their sound successfully, like Stereolab, who added so many layers to its music that it was one of the first bands to be labeled “post-rock.”
Of Montreal has also evolved, but with “Skeletal Lamping,” the result sounds more like a French-shock film than a smooth bedside drama. There are so many twists and turns here that it’s naturally frustrating. Fans will defend the album by calling it a grower, but there are only so many times you can listen to an album before having to trick yourself into thinking that it’s good.
This record is just a big collection of intriguing ideas that Barnes jammed together rather than a unified album. The record isn’t completely unlistenable, but listening to such a painfully unfocused record from a band that has only had excellent albums is sure to disappoint.