Friday, March 10, 2017

album review: 'volcano' by temples

You know, if I were to characterize nostalgia among most music critics, I'd say most that it's inconsistent. We appreciate acts that pay tribute to the past, but we don't them sounding too close to that sound or they just become imitators. We like winking references... to a point. We tend to love musical subversions and deconstructions of certain antiquated genres and styles, often at the expense of the song structures and sounds themselves, but if an act earnestly tempers or refines similar sounds and material, they're 'stuck in the past'... unless it happens to be a sound we like, and then we'll throw all the praise in the world at them.

And look, I'm not going to say I'm immune to these trends, but if you want to see a band that divides a lot of music critics on this line, it's the UK psychedelic band Temples. Their debut album Sun Structures was very plain in its worship of mid-to-late 60s psychedelic pop, and yet it divided a lot of critics, a significant chunk saying that they weren't really doing that much to differentiate themselves from their forebears. And of the surface, I'd mostly agree with that, if you're fond of that particular sound they're an easy sell - and yet it was the details in the writing and the thicker punch in their production that pushed that debut up several notches for me. Yeah, I could see the callbacks to T-Rex and The Byrds, but there was enough between the lines in the melodic composition and writing make them feel distinctive. You could make disparaging comparisons to Foxygen or Tame Impala all day, but Temples knew how to structure hooks and cohesive songs, and unlike Kevin Parker they could write lyrics that weren't utterly insufferable.

But now we have the follow-up three years later, and while a good retro interpretation can have a lot of mileage on a debut, following it up and keeping things unique and interesting is tougher - and yet with that in mind, I still had high expectations for Volcano, even despite critical reviews that were, once again, all over the map. But did Temples stick the landing?

Well, it was a peculiar listen, that's for damn sure, mostly because you can tell Temples has shifted and updated their sound, enough to the point where instead of early psychedelic rock comparisons they are closer in line with the more pop-leaning psychedelic textures you hear with acts like Tame Impala or MGMT. And yet again, I keep going back to the fundamentals here in melodic composition and songwriting and it's hard for me to deny that Temples is synthesizing a brand of psychedelia I find ridiculously catchy, strikingly well-written, and easily able to hold their own against more famous or critically-acclaimed brethren, if not surpass them. And if I'm being honest with myself, I'd probably put this on par with their debut... but in a different way.

But since I've given so much praise to those fundamentals, let's start there. Now as I've said too many times to count, one of my biggest frustrations with modern pop is a lack of focus on distinctive instrumental melody that differs than the vocal line, which they've tried to mask by drowning everything in reverb in order to intensify the atmosphere an obscure how hollow it all feels. Temples, on the other hand, almost overcompensate by placing their main melody line front and center on nearly the entire record - whether it be the synth or the guitar, they want it blaring front and center, and then backed up by enough bass thrumming bass or rhythm guitar to punch up the groove. Take the flattened chunks of rhythm guitar that hold the bright and yet slightly offkilter and oily main synth that opens 'Certainty' that occasionally resurface as added melodic accents; even if you think it's garish - which I do, along with the squealing layers of compressed guitar that hold the main melody of 'Born Into The Sunset' against the watery bass and drumline which has a wonky sort of drippy, Beach Boys-esque psychedelic texture - they are tunes that you remember, and the band shows enough complexity to evolve them in fascinating ways. And those are arguably the melodies that I like the least! The tinny guitars that play off the flute-like keys and organ on '(I Want To Be Your) Mirror' bring in some great harmonic interplay that builds off a buzzy low-end, glassy keys, and a twisted bass progression on the verses, the klaxon-like howls that drive the aggressive grooves of 'Clear Air' that twist and compress the synths, the more grandiose primary melody that holds 'Celebration' on waves of glossy synth with plenty of spacey flutters, and especially the cascading bounce of 'Mystery Of Pop' - especially when the bass and handclaps come in for one of the most elastic and sticky hooks you'll hear all year. Hell, even on songs that might seem more conventional you wind up with melodic lines that refuse to break - both 'Oh! The Savior' and 'In My Pocket' start off with acoustic guitar, but in both cases it isn't long before the big synth layers or big hooks break through. That's not saying this album can't ease back or take a break - 'How Would You Like To Go' opts for a more languid atmospheric approach, soaked in reverb and almost reminding me of the thrumming noisy potency of an old Flaming Lips tune, and the jangling bounce of the closer 'Strange Or Be Forgotten' has a certain bright swell before the gallop of the percussion on the hook that works quite well.

But the key word here is scope - Temples has always had a knack for psychedelic rock that feels big and cavernous, but where Sun Structures played coy with their watery textures and overdubs and soaked everything with a fair amount of reverb to accentuate the bombast, Volcano is intentionally more dense, using meatier synths to contribute layers of harmony to the main melody lines to intensify the heady whirl of psychedelia. And what's telling is how the vocals are layered - frontman James Edward Bagshaw freely admitted that on the debut he buried more of his vocals due to a guarded insecurity with his delivery, but on this album he opts for higher tones and falsetto and it comes through much cleaner. And if I were to find a point of contention, it'd probably be here - not that he's a bad singer without poise or presence, but it's a tone that wears a lot of its influences on its sleeve across many eras of psychedelic rock, and there's a part of me that misses the wry balance that came through on their debut in his mid-to low range. 

And what's all the more frustrating is that I can see people dismissing Temples as not as original based upon not particularly remarkable vocals alone - good melodies, for sure, but what makes this guy interesting or comparable to so many other high-pitched psychedelic crooners? Well, this is where we get into the lyrical content and where Temples have always been a lot more compelling than many have given them credit. What I've always liked about Temples is that they seem keenly self-aware of the sound they are making and how it is viewed by the audience - indeed, much of Sun Structures saw them walking the thin line between psychedelic madness and maintaining control of their almost ruthless compositional efficiency and intricacy. And on Volcano, a fair amount of the metatext becomes outright text, as much of the album seems to directly address Temples' increasingly strange place in modern indie and psychedelic rock, especially given that while they have certainly evolved and expanded their sound, due to their production choices and tones they're going to be treated as a throwback. 

And yet despite how oblique the writing style can be - this is psychedelic rock, after all - I really do like how methodical Temples are in deconstructing these arguments and ideas, and they don't shy away from including themselves in the framing. Take 'All Join In', where as much as they deride those chasing towards a dying future, they are very much aware that their approach could be felt as stuck in the past, noted with a detachment that is bemused and really very British. And it's that keen double-edged insight that runs through all the songs, from the self-serving reflective deception of nostalgic acts on '(I Wanna Be Your) Mirror' to the manic chase of fresh ideas on 'Oh! The Savior', a drive that seems to leave Temples more perplexed that outright annoyed or angry, with songs like 'In My Pocket' seeming to imply they are the odd ones, especially highlighting - correctly - that so much of psychedelia can feel masturbatory, especially as the insight seems to collapse once they get a handle on the idea as pointed out in 'Celebration'. It's one of the reasons I really do love 'Mystery Of Pop', where they explore modern culture's flighty fascination with pop trends that they know are empty and may not even be their stories to tell, but can captivate nonetheless. And the many references to Bowie on this song are telling, because Bowie never scorned pop so much as he realized and leveraged its populist power, something Temples finds utterly fascinating. Indeed, their greatest venom on this record is leveled on 'Roman God-Like Man', which is less about any specific political figure than it is political theater - men who spout empty ideologies in order to restage grand empire traditions... and yet Temples sees the power that comes in such theater nonetheless. And the album is capped off with 'Strange Or Be Forgotten', which focuses on how especially for artists there is a constant quest for unique legacy, even if it means embracing something that doesn't represent their true passion and artistic path - and again, it's not passing judgement so much as exploring the case, and reasserts Temples' commitment to their own path, albeit with plenty of curiosity towards the other.

In other words, the more I analyzed this record beyond just the ridiculously catchy melodies and rich harmonies and production quirks that feel as modern as anything Tame Impala are doing but with far more poised and insightful writing, the more I realized I kind of love this record. Volcano is the natural evolution from Sun Structures, very much a deconstructionist take on modern indie rock trends, but one that is refreshingly self-aware, unpretentious, and strikingly nuanced - and that's before you pair it with some of the catchiest music you'll probably hear this year! In short, I think I dug this about as much as I liked Sun Structures, if not a bit more, which means I'm giving it a light 9/10 and for sure a recommendation, especially if you've been looking for some phenomenally rich psychedelic music that's as pyrotechnic as its namesake. Definitely check this one out, I promise you won't regret it.

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