Friday, October 11, 2019

album review: 'a boat on the sea' by moron police

I think the general reaction from everyone who has heard this has been, 'Where the hell did this come from' - closely followed by 'Wait, those guys? Are you serious?!'

And that's a fair reaction here - for those of you who recognize the name Moron Police at all, you probably know them more for some Norwegian progressive metal that was more in the comedy scene... a scene I don't normally touch as a rule, because comedy music is incredibly subjective and I have strange tastes in comedy. And going back to Moron Police's first two albums... well, their debut had promise and showed a band who could split progressive heaviness with real hooks and some wit, but it seemed to curdle on their second album Defenders of the Small Yard into something darker with an odd, unpleasant sourness to it - this is a band that released a single called 'T-Bag Your Grandma', that should give you a rough idea where the humour was going. Coupled with a math rock side that was very much not my thing, after going through those first two albums in preparation for this one, I seriously questioned would it all be worth it... but those people who have heard A Boat On The Sea have not stopped raving about it and the recommendations only stepped up after my Tool review where I professed I liked my progressive rock and metal to have more melody. So with all of that mind, what is A Boat On The Sea?

Okay, wow, this was a ton of fun - and yes, it's exactly the sort of progressive rock I'm inclined to love, and I really do with this thing! And yes, I know I'm very much late to the party with A Boat On The Sea given how this has made waves, but it's also a project that for the last month or so whenever I've had a free half hour, it's become the album I'd put on without question to just boost my spirits, and I have to give Moron Police a ton of props for that. Hell, not even just that, but for honing in on their huge melodic hooks and sharpening that sense of humour to cut a lot deeper than many would expect! Yeah, you might think they'd double down on being shamelessly goofy, but there's a fair bit more going on beneath the surface... and the more I delved into it, the more I found myself convinced this could be one of the best damn rock albums of the year - not a joke, at all!

And I want to start off with instrumentation because what Moron Police do is so straightforward you could be forgiven for thinking it's easy: center strong and consistent melodic motifs throughout the project that are not precisely simple but can be repeated and mirrored across numerous instruments to drive already strong hooks deep into your mind. This is not a prog rock band that's ever been 'too good' with its technical complexity and speed for an anthemic hook that it'll stack across watery synthlines, Hammond organ, guitars, basslines, and even accordion and saxphone, but with a keen eye for transitions it often layers a few of those melodic hooks within the same song to keep them vibrant and sticky. And a huge part of this is smart mix balance, courtesy of Mike Watts - the percussion work might not jump off the page in the same way the melodies do, but it's never distracting as a support to very well-developed bass patterns and the constant focus on those hooks - hell, for the solo on 'The Invisible King' the main melodic motif just shifts to the bass for the keyboards and guitar to cut loose. Or take how the lead hook on 'Captain Awkward' provides a focal point amidst the incredibly jittery verses that play with funk and the fizzy burble of the arrangement, and when you think it'd just become too frenetic it slows down for an acoustic reprise that's perfectly timed. And there are so many of those little instrumental moments and precisely placed slowdowns and change-ups to highlight squished into eight short songs: the strings and horn solo on 'The Dog Song', the terrific piano break on 'The Undersea', the almost lounge-inspired cadence on the outro of 'Beware The Blue Sky', or even just how the band will stack the vocals high to produce a choral effect to make those anthems all the sweeter! And let me stress so much of this works because Moron Police have such a great for transitions: given the frenetic speed and diversity of instrumentation and tune, it would be very easy to induce a lot of whiplash, but Moron Police don't just allow developed breathers to build melody in between songs - between 'Captain Awkward' and 'The Undersea' is a great example, as is between 'The Invisible King' and 'Beware The Blue Sky' - but within songs as well, with no passage that feels forced or out of place.

That's not saying that there aren't a few issues here, though. For one, while the production is impeccably clean to accentuate those melodies and the irrepressible jaunty energy of the affair, you can definitely tell that the sizzle of the guitarlines has been muted from being as burly and vibrant as you'd hear in their metal days, which comes across most in the buzzy passages on the back half of the album, particularly on 'The Undersea'. Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad choice, but Moron Police could have afforded to let some of these songs get chunkier and heavier and I don't think their audience would have minded, especially if those melodies remain at the forefront. And that highlights how this album does feel a little 'homegrown' in its production - for as anthemic as it can be in composition, the limited budget is in the picture with the choice to rely on overlayered vocals and a recording that doesn't quite have the bombastic dramatic swell it could, and that means some textures don't quite have the same bite or swell. Now this isn't a deal-killer - it's still mixed and mastered incredibly well with the right sort of balance, but there are producers who could give this album the 'bigness' in tone they clearly want.

But a criticism I see others having with this project is that might come across as a little 'too' chipper or flashy - a lot of progressive technicolour flair, but clearly playing for more comedic effect. And yet this is not something I agree with at all... which takes us to the lyrics, where Moron Police may have smuggled in one of the bleaker criticisms of war and U.S. imperialism I've seen in a long time! No, I'm not kidding with that: both 'The Phantom Below' and 'The Invisible God' are from the perspective of soldiers in what has been framed as a holy war, with serious questions of the judgement of those sending them to battle and pulling their strings, in the latter case featuring a passage with sampled wartime propaganda. And Moron Police aren't done, because 'Beware The Blue Skies' is a sarcastic, biting slice of anti-drone rhetoric that doesn't just target the U.S., but Norway's complicit weapons sales and "neutrality". It's one hell of a wallop to pack into such insanely catchy hooks, which makes the shift to a cut like 'The Dog Song' - all from the perspective of an innocent, happy-go-lucky dog - might seem awkward, but this is where subtext and themes slide to the forefront, because there's a lot of otherwise savage language included in that dog's thoughts! It's an intentional parallel to the animal instincts being agitated by those higher powers across all the rhetoric on the album, and when you live under that for an extended period... well, the panic and anxiety of 'Captain Awkward' makes a lot of sense. And this is where the themes of this album snap sharper into focus: humanity loves to serve and elevate higher powers to win favour, often in bloodthirsty fashion... but said 'higher powers' are often just constructs pitting us against each other, and in an increasingly apocalyptic world, why engage with any of it when you can just chase your passions and then die? And if you think that's a strikingly nihilistic point of view to match with something this anthemic... well, it is, but Moron Police tempers this worldview on the final two songs, not just how disengagement from that pointless conflict can harden you to confront the real issues, but also by highlighting it shouldn't all just be for self-interest and that we need to be there for each other, especially so history doesn't repeat itself yet again. In a way a lot of the thematic arc feels strikingly reminiscent of what Falls Of Rauros did on Patterns In Mythology earlier this year, but with the decidedly acrid satire in the content, especially given how infectious the album otherwise is, this might just stick the landing a little harder.

So to sum this up... yeah, I'm late to the party, but I have to hope the more word is spread about A Boat On The Sea, more people will show up regardless. Moron Police delivered a quick, insanely catchy, remarkably cutting slice of progressive rock here that is overstuffed with hooks to spare, and while many people might come for what they see as comedy, the refinement of the satire gives this project genuine teeth along the way. And again, for a project to remain this sticky despite so many listens has to show it's doing something right, so for me? A light 9/10, absolutely a recommendation, especially if you're into progressive rock and metal on the more melodic side, and if you want something that's got depths beneath that boat many won't care to see. Brilliant stuff, a complete surprise in the best way possible, absolutely make the time to check this out!

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