Monday, February 10, 2014

album review: 'sun structures' by temples

It's common practice in today's age of ubiquitous marketing that whenever there's a new movie coming out, the actors in that film pull double duty and appear on the talk show circuit to promote the film, whether it be great or terrible. And at this point, I'm honestly bewildered at why anyone would buy into that style of promotion - not only is it blatantly direct marketing, most of the actors involved seem to be exasperated to be doing it (see Bruce Willis' breakdown on live British TV regarding A Good Day To Die Hard - and having seen that POS, it's not hard to see why). I mean, the actors have a stake in the film, why the hell should anyone buy into their assertions that the movie is worth seeing instead of, say, the critical press?

But let's take this a step further: what happens when you get celebrity endorsements for acts where there's no connection between them whatsoever? Well, to place stock in that sort of endorsement, I'd argue that it'd come down to the expertise said celebrity brings to the table. For instance, I got a comment when I reviewed Young The Giant's Mind Over Matter that my opinion was somehow invalid because Morrissey liked that album - and on the face of it, it's a hard argument to beat. Morrissey is a critically-acclaimed musician with decades in the industry, so why shouldn't his opinion be held higher than mine?

Well, I could easily point out the long list of things Morrissey likes that are garbage and the even longer list of things Morrissey hates that aren't worth hating, but instead I'd like to take the high road and talk about a debut album endorsed by a member of The Smiths I can tolerate. This brings us to Sun Structures by the band Temples, a psychedelic rock act that has been acclaimed by Johnny Marr and Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher as one of the best new bands in England. Now that's high praise from two of the most influential names in English rock in the past thirty years, but even on that note I was skeptical. Celebrity endorsements might be indicators of quality on a roughly defined scale, but everyone has different tastes, and I'm not going to be a hypocrite and parrot the praise of legends without giving the band an evaluation myself and discovering why I might like or dislike the band outside of additional press. So, what did I think of Sun Structures by Temples?

Well, quite frankly, I dig the hell out of this band, and Sun Structures by Temples is a phenomenally strong debut album - but on the other hand, I know exactly why they aren't getting more airplay, so I'm not as angry as Noel Gallagher on that front. Because Temples as an act... well, let's call it like it is: Temples is a band that would not sound out-of-place in the slightest in the late-60s, early 70s psychedelic rock scene, from the production to the instrumentation to the vocals to the cryptic lyrics. Some will brand this band a throwback to that wonderful time in rock music over 40 years ago - and it would be hard for me to argue against it.

And immediately I can see the critical reaction being split between those who have a nostalgic fondness for the act and who'll embrace the band regardless of actual quality (of which there definitely is) and those who'll castigate the band for mimicking an earlier sound and not innovating sonically in the same way. I tend to take a middle path when it comes to acts who call back to the past, and that comes in identifying what would have made this band distinctive if they released this album over four decades ago - because, to be completely honest with myself, I'm a real sucker for good psychedelic rock, especially from this time period. And I can't deny that Temples nails the sound damn near perfectly. The hollow, booming drums, the menacing snarl of the bass, the squeals and chintz of the organs and keyboards, the wide breadth of guitar tones all contributing to a thick swell of sound. Even the vocals from James Edward Bagshaw have the reedy, willowy quality reminiscent of Sgt Pepper-era Beatles, and the raw production adds cohesion and texture with real pomp and circumstance, driving heaviness that has momentum yet remains understated. Of course, this does mean the vocals aren't as prominent as I'd like in the mix, but that's always been a minor annoyance with the genre and I'm willing to mostly look past it.

But there are big elements that makes Temples stand out above just being a nostalgia act, and the first becomes apparent very quickly: for a psychedelic rock act, there's very little bloat to this album. The thing that puts Temples above psychedelic rock acts from that era like, say, Iron Butterfly is that Temples doesn't really indulge in the histrionics, aimless solos, and pretentious nonsense that tends to clog up even good music in this genre. There's a real tightness and calculated control to the melody lines that you just don't see in this particular genre very often, and it lends the music a phenomenal pop sensibility. Indeed, the tracks that are weakest on this record are those that are a little flabbier, like 'Move With The Season' and 'Sand Dance' - and even they have some great, memorable melody lines that don't have the need to wallow in reverb. And while the album is definitely grandiose, the tightness extends to the instrumentation, not bothering with orchestral digressions or any element that would make them sound overblown.

This is intentional, and leads directly into a discussion of lyrics and themes. Now at some point, lyrics in psychedelic rock either stop mattering or stop making sense entirely - and on this record, the lyrics are the least essential element. But if I were to hazard a guess based on the lyrics I could make out (and from the woefully incomplete state of lyrics posted online at the time of this review), this album's biggest theme is focused on self-control (even in the 'love' songs), keeping a firm grip on your environment and not succumbing to wild excess. Sun Structures might initially reveal itself as just another upbeat hippie record in the vein of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, but it very quickly goes above and beyond and reveals a lot of darkness and cynicism underneath, especially when it comes to Temples' own place in the genre. I get the feeling that they're very well-aware of the fact they're playing in a genre that either became stagnant and bloated or devolved into pandering, cheesy nonsense, and you can tell the band has a focus on not letting either situation happen. 'Sun Structures', 'Keep In The Dark', 'Mesmerize', 'Colours To Life', and especially 'Test Of Time' focus on legacy and Temples' place with respect to their genre, and while it is calculated, there's a swagger and confidence to this record that lends it some organic presence to back up the pomp. And then they take a step further with 'A Question Isn't Answered' and 'The Guesser', both loaded with sharp assertions of power that target aimless vacillation and philosophy that goes nowhere, neither of which the band has much patience for when it defies logic and common sense.

All of this leads to an album that really ends up being a lot darker and more calculated than most psychedelic rock tends to be - but the band walks the tightrope, keeps the sound organic, and the balance comes together. It's an album that adopts a 'noir' atmosphere as a light musical motif, slinky and muted (and kind of sexy in an odd way), and it works incredibly because the swaggering 'heroes' of that genre had to have self-control or they'd be destroyed by the chaos of the world around them. The 'sun structures' of this album are less temples to sun gods but abodes where the band can stay away from the overloaded swirl of their genre and impose some vestige of control. And the bizarre and wonderful thing is that I don't find this album insincere - the band makes it fairly evident that they're content to bide their time in the dark and react only when necessary, and Bagshaw's vocals toe the balance between earnestness and acerbic observations, all with the hard-edged confidence to back it up.

In other words, I love this album for many of the same reasons I love Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action by Franz Ferdinand. Sure, it's in a genre and discussing thematic elements I agree with and like, but it does so in a way that I find cohesive, engaging, incredibly catchy, and brilliantly executed. And considering Temples pulled this off on a debut album with a ton of flair and control in a genre known for none of the latter, it makes the album all the more engaging and the future for this band all the more exciting. It's a 9/10, and I definitely recommend this record. If you're a fan of psychedelic rock in any form, and you're hunting for an album that takes the glorious acid-fueled earnestness of the past and fuses it with the pitch-black intellect and control of the darker edges of alternative and indie rock, this record is for you. And even if you're not looking for that, get this record anyway and support Temples as much as you can.

After all, I might understand why they're not exactly charting, but I don't have to like it - but in an era where the Arctic Monkeys actually managed to lodge a song on the Billboard Hot 100 as we speak, we might just have a chance to change it.

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