Old World Vulture are a cyborg of a band. The fusion of electronic elements into a rock band can sometimes create art that is cold and inhuman, losing the best qualities of both humans and machines. Old World Vulture escape this trap by infusing their electronic dreams with human characters, who wordlessly speak their hopes and fears against the backdrop of a wind-swept city that blinks like a circuit board, shaking their artificial fists at a poisoned crimson sky. They are reminding you that the Age of Technology is powered by the same source as all others: the human soul.
Their debut album “Trophy Lovers” has been gestating for a while. The band have been refining and redefining their material for longer than most bands exist in this age of reduced attention spans. But the wait has been worth it. The album is a glorious fusion of capacitors and flesh. Seldom does a band emerge with such an immersive sound. This is meticulously composed music, with melodies and textures bouncing off of each other to great effect. OWV also know the value of abandon, and they rock their anthems out at bone-rattling volume. Warm vintage synthesizers wrap themselves around drum beats that alternately skip and pound, deep basslines that draw the air out of your lungs, with the layers of guitars playing hopscotch in the negative spaces. The songs are thematically composed and sing-able; after one listen, I defy anyone not to sing the synth hook of “J.R. Flood”.
The album opens with “Slave Traders, Horse Thieves & Other Villains”, a song that creeps up on the listener slowly, like a sinister alarm clock, before erupting into a fiery slow-motion blast of symphonic friction, like a gigantic meteor falling through the atmosphere. The tension-and-release concept is central to Old World Vulture’s music; in the absence of traditional vocals, they play with dynamics and textures like a group of space-age Impressionists. Debussy on the moon. Ravel inside a black hole.
Next up is “J.R. Flood”, named after the early band of Canadian rock god Neil Peart. This is the bruising, moody track that melted my brain when I recently attended Old World Vulture’s album release party. It’s the theme of the imaginary “Blade Runner” fantasy in my head. It a gloriously rocking fusion of sound and fury, rushing like a river of blood. The second half of the song erupts into an angry deluge of guitar noise and an ascending counterpoint melody that never quite escapes the din. The overlapping melodies and the sheer muscle of this tune are staggering in their hugeness. It has a heaviness that speaks to the post-modern anxiety in all of us. It’s like we all already knew this song but hadn’t heard it yet.
The song segues into “Moon”, a relaxed jam centered around evocative guitar leads, treated vocals, and a laid-back groove. The song is another exercise in tension and atmosphere, as they expand on the key of the previous song, creating the impression of symphonic movement. A cold sun bathing a peacefully desolate moonscape, dust and rocks grinding silently under your feet. A haunting keyboard melody and a guitar solo like a burst of fireworks send you off into reverie, marveling at the landscape that is falling away before you. A cathedral rises from the dust, with a multi-armed organist playing funeral hymns before an alter of glowing grey stone.
“Patterson-Gimlin” continues the hymn-like vibrations, bringing the cathedral back to earth, where it rests in a desert waiting for the sunrise. What this song has to do with Bigfoot, I have no idea, but the way the guitars skip around the melody reminds me of some kind of futuristic bluegrass. The trumpet reappears mysteriously, like a cameo appearance in a film, blasting evocative whole notes and counter-melodies. The ending gradually expands, until the sunrise is complete and the desert recedes into the imagination.
“Yer Exotic” brings a slightly New Wave feeling, with it’s spidery echoed piano line and nimble guitar arpeggios. A blast of rock noise keeps it from being too precious. It’s like early U2 jamming with Godspeed You! Black Emperor on a Sonic Youth track.
Next up is the title track, “Trophy Lovers”, which is probably the most “pop” tune on this record. But in this world, pop still carries a lot of avant-garde weight. The song is built around a melodic, rubbery bassline that rises and rises like an endless staircase. Keyboards twinkle and the drums kick out a clock-like tick-tocking beat, while guitars flit and slice through the air. The second half changes gears into a breakdown with a high ringing melody and a Big Rock Buildup. The tension, their greatest weapon, builds until the song ends abruptly, leaving you stranded, wondering where to go next.
Fear not: the best is yet to come. The two song suite “Last Kicks of a Dying Horse” and “Soft Target” are the centerpiece of the album, using all the techniques at their disposal: tension and release, texture and atmosphere, guitar heroics, spacey keyboard interludes, pulsing grooves, reverb, raw noise, and the concept of negative space. “Last Kicks…” starts off with a relaxed seventies rock groove and gradually builds into a tsunami of white noise. Then the real fun begins.
“Soft Target” brings the whole thing crashing down with a classic, funky, moody, rocking groove that is as deep as a crater. The band reminds you that you are free, with the organ and the guitars conversing back and forth like kids skipping along the freeway. There’s a sense of menace, but also hope. There’s a power to this tune that cannot be denied, a sense of unstoppable movement, propelling you towards some unknowable future where the world isn’t poisoned and the people remember the sins of the past.
“Stella” comes in like a coda, a wordless elegy for the departed and the departing. The trumpet reappears one more time, hovering in the fog. The album ends with a sense of restful peace after a long journey, dropping you slowly down to the bottom of the ocean in sweet oblivion.
Old World Vulture have crafted a stunning debut album that plays to all of their strengths. Catch this band live, and get this album, before the robots hunt you down.
Pingback: The List at the End of the Year | Audio Reckoning