Music Reviews

The Antlers Familiars

(Anti-) Rating - 8/10

It’s always good to see a band growing. Sure, maybe The Antlers, because of the conceptual unity and heart poured into them, couldn’t make variations of the same album over and over, but they could just as well have stopped after Hospice or become a mediocre band. Two LPs of bedroom sketches (back when The Antlers was Peter Silberman’s solo project) transformed into a dazzling, heartbreaking mix of various strains of “indie rock” (fractured bits of electronic-influenced rock, dream pop, Neutral Milk Hotel-esque singer-songwriter stuff), and Burst Apart turned an entirely new direction with its smokey, somnambulist take on space-rock, sounding more like Spiritualized than any of their previous influences. Their latest, Familiars, takes quasi-jazz queues from 2012’s Undersea EP, but like Burst Apart, is an album in which you get lost. While Hospice and the solo LPs Uprooted and In The Attic of the Universe offered musically sparser material and alternatingly short and long songs to re-focus and bridge the experience—think of the affect Atrophy or Two have on the pace of Hospice—and relied on markedly different sounds to make recurring melodies immediately noticeable, Familiars intentionally opts for uniformity. Nine songs make up just over 53 minutes and range from 4:57 to 7:42, meaning the average song length is at its highest and the gap between the shortest and longest song is smaller than ever.

Undoubtedly, this is going to lead to accusations that “all the songs sound the same,” and there is certainly uniformity in the production, but instrumentally it’s their most diverse album yet. Palace begins with a piano line as beautiful as anything in the band’s discography - the horns (and trumpet in particular) feature early and often in Doppelganger, Revisited, and Surrender, leagues apart from the melodic, guitar-driven Director, which sustains a six-note riff with slight variations for the entire 6:14 song; guitar work elegant yet moody in a way that recalls later live renditions of Burst Apart highlight No Widows, in which the palm-muted lead riff was allowed the same reverb as the rest of the instruments on the album. Parade, perhaps the album’s sparsest song (aside from the closer, Refuge) also looks to be carried by guitar, but before the chorus a saxophone kicks in and the song takes a big turn.

In fact, the melodies on Familiars might be the catchiest and most memorable the band has yet recorded. That isn’t to say these are earworms or that they will get stuck in your head, but even as production grows and sound expands, the band (which is rarely if ever a trio on this album and doubles in size on the stunning Revisited) are growing as songwriters and melodists. Silberman spends much of Hospice speaking over music, so much so that some of the songs border on poems with accompaniment, and while Burst Apart sees his voice grow much stronger and more confident, his singing still often times followed its own course (not on Rolled Together, but certainly on Corsicana or Putting The Dog To Sleep or even I Don’t Want Love). On Familiars, vocals brazenly go with the music, allowing Silberman to showcase his still-improving belt on Hotel and sustain a melody on his own with Surrender, which allows for horn flourishes in a way that a song like Two, great as it is,never could have.

All of these elements and more come to the fore on Revisited. At 7:42, it’s among the band’s longest songs, and also among their very best. Silberman uses all his vocal tricks—his falsetto, his better-than-ever belt, and his confidence to both find and match melodies—while a steady drumbeat and piano anchor the song, with horns doing the heavy-lifting between verses. Near the end, an extra guitarist, cello, and horns deftly rotate in and out near the end of the song to create the album’s biggest catharsis (and every Antlers album depends heavily on catharsis), an appropriate conclusion to a heart-breaking, Hospice-reminiscent tale.

Speaking of which, let’s talk lyrics. Familiars is not a Hospice level concept album, although it is close. Silberman’s lyrics are heavy on architectural imagery—not just palaces and hotels, but gardens, fortresses and armories, castle walls, mausoleums, and more—as well as title-references to a Doppelganger and Intruders. Palace begins the album by recalling innocence lost before “you learned to disconnect” and before broken hearts (“He left the tallest peak of your paradise/Buried in the bottom of a canyon in hell”) but end with a vow to “carpenter a home in our heart right now/And carve a palace from within,” establishing love as an abstract, architectural feat that the narrator spends the rest of the album defending, largely from himself. Indeed, Palace may be the only song spoken to the object of the speaker’s love.

Doppelganger overstays its welcome a bit—it’s the least melodic song on the album but also the second longest—but lyrically, it introduces the album’s main antagonist, the “Paranoia backward whispering on my shoulder,” the voice in the back of your head telling you things won’t work making hurtful, selfish decisions. Hotel sees an internal confrontation of personal demons, while Intruders externalizes them. A promise to “cut my hair and cut the power” disconnect the speaker from youth, and his fear of being “without weapons/without defense to arm my guards against intruders” is resolved with the promise that “when my double scales the wall/I’ll know exactly where he’s landing and I’ll surprise him.” The back and forth continues, with Director, Revisited, and possibly Parade arguably addressing the character in Palace and suggest that both people have their “doppelgangers,” insecurities and shortcomings that twist and threaten the relationship that need to be addressed, accepted (Surrender), and worked through together (Refuge). It is expressed somewhat muddily, until Refuge, which opens immediately the lyric “when you lift me out of me,” carries the implication that the war has been won even if there is still another battle or two still to wage.

Lyrically, this is Silberman’s most abstract work yet. In The Attic of the Universe (and to a lesser extent, the more literal Uprooted) used anthropomorphism to literalize the pressing urgency of an existential crisis, and it was only when objects were de-animated and spoken of in the passive tense that the protagonist could fully accept his smallness; Hospice told the story of a relationship between a hospice worker and a patient almost literally, the allegory of an abusive relationship being more implied than stated; Burst Apart utilized vignettes to sketch a portrait of the capacity (or possibly the desire, amidst all the implied sexual frustration) to love being slowly regained (as if following Hospice); Familiars, again picks up where the previous LP left off, with past hurt being acknowledged but beginning with the desire to start anew, using recurring architectural images more than anything to give the impression of continuity.

A few things are happening here: One, Silberman’s lyrics are continuing to turn inward, with Familiars being about oneself more than external conditions. Second, the naiveté present up to Hospice is completely gone, with Familiars having more than couple lyrics reflecting on “when I’m older” and being nineteen. Third, and most importantly, The Antlers now sound, once and for all, like The Antlers. A big credit on this goes to multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci, who now handles everything from keys and organ to synth to bass in addition to trumpet and bowed banjo, as he was credited on Hospice, which helps account for the band’s diverse, expanding sound. Michael Lerner has also taken noticeable steps, with songs like Hotel, Revisited, and Surrender depending on his swung rhythms that give much of the album a jazz feel. In some ways, Hospice felt like a one-hit wonder—it sounded like other bands and had the narrative and lyrics that made it seem like nothing would be left afterward. What a pleasure that Familiars is familiar primarily for its quality rather than its qualities.