By Robin Wheeler
Remember the funk-charged of Montreal that surfaced on 2010 "False Priest", partnering with Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles? "Sex Karma," the latter's duet with band leader Kevin Barnes, created a lush outer space sex den that would be hard for anyone with nerve endings to abandon.
of Montreal's further beyond the atmosphere in "Paralytic Stalks." It's more angst than ecstasy and more Ziggy Stardust than Prince as they prod and orchestrate the downside of space age love. Not that this is a surprise, considering last year's twelve-minute synth tome, "The Past is a Grotesque Animal" hinted at the ascent into new levels of angst at the prospect of the love and passion that grounded "False Priest."
"Paralytic Stalks" opens with an assault of vocal reverberations, followed by cosmic synthesizers in "Gelid Ascent" before Barnes intones, "You are what parasites evolved from," with a deep growl that belies his usual Prince-inspired falsetto. With that one line he sets the tone of anger and lover's resentment that rolls through the heavily orchestrated album. After Barnes spits out the track's more traditionally-constructed pop middle, he goes quiet while the band veers into a manic prog-rock extended conclusion, a dense, aluminum-sheaned storm that seamlessly morphs into "Spiteful Intervention."
Barnes' outlook hasn't improved. Over twinkling keyboards he opens with the same optimism he started the previous song: "It's fucking sad that we need a tragedy to get a fresh perspective on our lives. Nothing happens for a reason. You know the sad truth as well as I." Backed with high, sugared harmonies, Barnes softens his vocal tone, but not his message: he's haunting his own life, and reveling in how good it feels to hurt the one he loves while "rotting in filth that should fill" him "with shame" while rejecting a lover's kindness in a wash of nihilism.
The soulful falsetto of recent albums returns for "Dour Percentage." This time the apocalyptic world is wrapped in the glow of '70s AM radio gold that could be mistaken for the album's feel-good track if the lyrical message is ignored: "You're in your own personal ghetto, but no one's forcing you to stay there," "And it cheapens us, the way we torture each other."
The album doesn't veer far from this pace, maintaining seamless orchestrations between tracks, creating the feel of a lesser Queen rock opera where the rich, spacey instrumentation devolves into cacophony, then grasps at the melody and harmony. The noisy but harmonic "We Will Commit Wolf Murder" maintains it composure, relatively speaking, for over three minutes before it taking a deep breath and plummeting from the solar system straight into hell. Barnes screams, "There's blood in my hair! There's blood in my hair," his falsetto razor-sharp, over and over, to a primal bass drum peppered with synthed hand claps and devil howls that don't even fade before pausing and turning lullaby-gentle in "Malific Dowery." In keeping pace with beautifully crafted thematic opening lines, Barnes takes a quiet warmth as he reminds, "Love is not a debtor's prison. You don't have to pay back what you've been given." Not that all's well. Our narrator's mired in passive-aggressive paranoia, reading malice into fidelity and calling affection a hostile act.
With this confused world view, it makes sense that "Ye, Renew the Plaintiff" grows more discordant and noisy. Clocking in at nearly nine minutes, thus begins the album's transition into full-blown operatic storytelling, drenched in layers of reverb and overdubs in what feels like an attempt to create a post-modern "Bohemian Rhapsody." While they don't succeed - who can? - they give it a listenable go with a courtroom narrative that finds Barnes defending himself against the crimes humanity's committed before him.
Ending with a crashing bass piano note, "...Plaintiff" gives way to Elliott Smith-inspired whispered vocals and acoustic guitar on "Wintered Debts," cries of "too much bitterness" getting wrapped in late-Beatles harmonies as Barnes ditches to tormented singer-songwriter sound for ironic pop and the lilt of steel guitar: "Slipping on my own vomit while trying to call you from a bathroom in São Paulo, but I was too drunk to try to formulate any human language. So much bitterness." Eventually there's begging to be saved from starvation, backed by a wall of noisy, repetitive pianos that merge with violins and guitars, an entrenchment in sitar-styled noise.
"Exorcismic Breeding Knife" and Authentic Pyrrhic Remission," comprise the last twenty minutes of the album. All the lover's anger is gone, turned fetid and terrifying in the former, which could serve as a horror film score, filled with icy clatters, panicky violins, and a deep, huffing bass over a tell-tale heartbeat that rises to fever pitch, building then collapsing under the weight of untuned pianos. It's the analog sounds of nostalgic horror, of the house on haunted hill trembling as Reagan backbends down the stairs. Even scary movie nightmare from childhood at once.
Then silence, before the final track switches back to the cold, comparative calm of digitized outer space again. What was disconcerting at the beginning of the album is now calming, compared to where we've been. Accompanied by a loop of chirpy "la la la"s and hand-claps, Barnes questions, "So much violence in my head. How are we still alive?" The subject of his ire through the entire album is now redeemed. "I love how we're learning from each other. You are such a positive. You're so empowered." He continues, "You're the only one who ever put money on me, but you think I forget so easily. I know we're of the same tribe."
So why does it feel like this is going to end in a blood bath? Because it does after a mere five minutes of praise, descending back into fevered noise punctuated with Barnes' manic laugh, eaten by demon strings, Moog howls, and the overwhelming horror film score again. Gradually, it quiets, a buzzing undercurrent that sighs to a stop. Barnes, in his most authentic voice on the album, accompanied by melodic piano, surmised, "Tell this afternoon I was a nomad. No country could call me its son."
"Tell this afternoon I was a pyrriah. A mongrel chased and kicked and hit. Hunted in my dreaming, though there was no crime I did commit."
"Tell this afternoon I was an exile. Now that word is obsolete. There are no nations, no concept of ego. Our illumination is complete."
He's the loneliest man who ever lived as the world has disintegrated. Love is dangerous. Pleasure's terrifying. And there is no connection. All the warmth and soul from 2010 is long gone, lost in a vacuum of insecurity and shame, as strong as the universe.
of Montreal - Paralytic Stalks track list
01. Gelid Ascent
02. Spiteful Intervention
03. Dour Percentage
04. We Will Commit Wolf Murder
05. Malefic Dowery
06. Ye, Renew The Plaintiff
07. Wintered Debts
08. Exorcismic Breeding Knife
09. Authentic Pyrrhic Remission