Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Listening to Antiphon is like watching someone stargaze. The sense that the band is experiencing something spectacular and profound pervades the album. Yet whatever they’re looking at is never really visible to the listener.
Though recently reformed — and apparently invigorated — after the departure of lead singer and songwriter Tim Smith, Antiphon is undeniably a Midlake album. The group first gained popularity with two quintessential, critically acclaimed 2000s albums — The Trials of Van Occupanther and The Courage of Others. All the hallmarks of their old sound are still here, just in varied proportion. Like their best work, these songs have incredible dynamic range; they never simply build, but wander and spike in erratic and exciting ways. Similarly, they have total command of their Aqualung flute lines, magical folk arrangements, and 70s psych-rock synths. At their best, these songs drive harder than any of Midlake’s previous work while retaining a classic Midlake mysticism. Yet, at their worst, they seem completely aimless and fundamentally empty.
Midlake’s songs have always risked the pompous. Occasionally, their rarified sound feels so pronounced that they could well challenge Wes Anderson for the title of Most Mannered Texan Artist. Yet on earlier records, the band’s intricate arrangements and tightly controlled production gave their songs an intimate expanse — keyhole views of Tim Smith’s odd personal world. Now, songs like “It’s Going Down” come equipped with a ubiquitous woozy synthesizer (it sounds like the pitch modulator on their keyboard has been broken) and perfunctory rock guitar hooks. Midlake’s classically tight production can neuter these harder songs, too. On much of the album — and especially on “Provider” — the band’s dynamics come at the cost of a well-centered, memorable song, and always the chorus melodies feel overstuffed with melodic phrases and harmonies.
The band’s gleeful experimentation does yield neat musical moments — as with the spacey end of “Corruption.” Yet their apparent lack of restraint more often translates to ridiculous indulgence. Lyrics like “Time would have warranted all that the foliage brung” and the especially offensive “Science, our daughter / Religion, our father / Who is mother?” are sweepingly evocative and ultimately meaningless. “Provider” is a completely inscrutable song that may or may not attempt to trace the evolution of man.
Antiphon is, however, an impressively executed album, and a true feat of musicianship in a genre that is more typically driven by songwriters lacking technical ability. This is Antiphon’s saving grace, but still it feels empty. “Start a war / Start a war” sings new lead singer Eric Pulido on the titular track. Midlake sounds like they have nothing to fight for.