Music Review: of Montreal’s “Aureate Gloom”

of Montreal "Aureate Gloom"ARTIST: of Montreal
ALBUM TITLE: Aureate Gloom
LABEL: Polyvinyl Records
RELEASE DATE: March 3rd, 2015

Your heart is broken and it’s an ugly scene. We’re not talking about the fizzle of a fling but divorce, with a kid too. What do you do to cope? Buy personal stock in Kleenex and Match.com? Compulsively watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” while stalking ex-lovers on Facebook? Do you descend into the dark night of the soul without return, or ultimately find the strength to rebuild?

If you’re Kevin Barnes, of Montreal’s front man, you channel your emotional angst into a two-week creative retreat during the summer in New York City. After splitting with his wife of eleven years, artist Nina Aimee Grøttland, he “wandered around Chelsea, Greenwich Village, SoHo, and Chinatown, imagining what it was like 40 years ago, picturing himself as Tom Verlaine or Patti Smith, or James Chance.” Barnes channeled the city’s electricity into a manic song-writing binge, furiously churning out demos with his electric guitar plugged directly into his laptop. After workshopping the rough sketches with the drummer Clayton Rychlik in the group’s native Athens, Georgia, the touring band traveled to Texas’ Sonic Ranch, along with longtime engineer collaborator Drew Vandenberg. They recorded a song a day every day, and spent the same amount of time mixing. Three weeks later, an album was born.

The end result, Aureate Gloom, is of Montreal’s thirteenth album in two decades. The group is a mainstay of modern psychedelia, as a founding outfit of the Elephant 6 collective created for and by groups who have an affinity for 1960’s glam rock and freak folk (some other members include The Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power and most notably, Neutral Milk Hotel). Their discography journeys through a diverse array of genres, ranging from steel pedal Americana to plangent dance pop. For the first time in their prolific catalogue, this album safely stays within previously charted sonic territory. Here, you find their token catchy glam rock hooks, with complex song structures and chord patterns. Some songs even seem to contain elements plucked from previous releases, such as “Empyrean Abattoir”’s 5/4 indie dance pop rhythm’s parallel with 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic’s hit “Disconnect The Dots.” While this album is generally a pleasant listen for those who have an affinity for of Montreal’s sound, it is nowhere near their strongest work.

The album commences with the single, “Bassem Sabry,” named after a prominent Egyptian journalist heavily involved in the Arab Spring who passed away last year. Usually, Barnes’ lyrics draw from introspection or fantastical imagination. Shifting to subject matter grounded in current events is a welcome departure from tradition. The first fifteen seconds are a propulsive cacophony, like the howl of a plane careening down the tarmac. The noise yields to a punchy garage pop song, over which Barnes speak-sings in a strained, nasal British invasion-esqe timbre. The song progresses manically, moving through many different stylistic outfits– glam rock, twee pop, among other dissonant sonic personalities.

Aureate Gloom’s remaining nine tracks continue to frantically traverse a huge array of sounds, some palatable, others grating. The album’s least successful moments stem from an excessive inclusion of ideas, rendering none of them fully realized– a singular track sounding as if it contained 18 rough demos. A prime example of this conceptual schizophrenia is “Aluminum Crown.” The song begins with one of the more beautiful moments on the album, a gauzy wall of guitars complimenting Barnes crooning– “troubled dreams, troubled dreams, I’ve been cursed by, troubled dreams.” The guitars whoosh euphorically over a lazy drumbeat. After a minute, the track abruptly changes direction to a completely different composition altogether– the drums clamor harshly, and the vocals become confrontational. The song ultimately returns to a dreamlike waltz for its final part, yet the abrupt transitions depreciate its shoegaze mystique. It may be possible that the manic changes in style are an intentional tactic used to prevent the listener from becoming too comfortable, mirroring the emotional upheaval Barnes was experiencing while writing the album. If this is the case, the execution is half-baked.

Other songs are more cohesive and deliver the exact sort of fuzzy, gyrating psychedelic guitar rock one seeks from of Montreal. “Apollyon Of Blue Room” possesses the closest resemblance to the 1970’s NYC art rock Barnes drew inspiration from; during the hook, Barnes’ Richard Hell-esque singing and the guitar follow the same tight, teasing melody. While most of the songs follow a conventional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge song structure, “Chthonian Dirge For Uruk The Other” whirs and shrieks; Barnes vocals are distorted and abrasive. This song sounds like being chased down a subway tunnel by a runaway train, while strung out on a dangerous cocktail of amphetamines. Layers of feedback paint a dystopic, no-wave composition, completely lacking in melody or recognizable instrumental parts.

There’s a sweet spot to the schedule of the record making process– allotting enough time for the songs to breathe and become fully realized, but terminating before all parties start to regress. Aureate Gloom sounds like an album made in as short of a time period as it was, and suffers for it. The success of of Montreal’s acclaimed albums is predicated on reinvention, something which this album lacks. As a breakup album, it catalogues the manic phases of Barnes’ self-destruction– a state he still seems to be lost in, rather than providing retrospective commentary on it. When the album succeeds, the instrumentation acts as palliative to the melancholy, distraught lyrics; the weaker moments occur as a tangled mess between emotion and fragmented creative ambition.

Some albums seduce instantaneously, leaving the listener with an assembly of hooks rattling around between one’s ears. Others have a steeper learning curve, testing the listener’s patience. Sometimes one’s patience is rewarded, other times not so much. With Aureate Gloom, the jury’s still out.