Music Reviews

Majical Cloudz Impersonator

(Matador) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

It’s amazing how the simple act of making eye contact with another human being can be so intimate and completely uncomfortable at the same time. In the most abstract sense of the idea, making eye contact means fully embracing the presence of another person while also putting yourself completely out there to be viewed and studied, meaning that for even a moment’s notice, you are fully invested in one another. It’s a subtle, almost unwarranted type of raw, human connection that the members of Montreal electronic duo Majical Cloudz understand all too well.

Though I’ve never seen them live, I’ve often heard that Devon Welsh, singer for Majical Cloudz, pulls this kind of maneuver while performing, staring directly into the eyes of a few patrons dead on while belting his simple yet revealing lyrics. While most artists would come off as creepy and unpleasant utilizing such a practice, it seems perfectly necessary given the kind of music Majical Cloudz makes, which is about as intimate and personal as synth-based music can possibly get. Impersonator, with its ten bare-bones compositions and revealing confessionals, comes off as electronic music’s equivalent to staring deep into a total strangers' eyes and experiencing every unfiltered emotion they are feeling.

Despite the atrociously tacky name “Majical Cloudz,” there is virtually nothing about the duo, both in presentation and musically, that isn’t totally naked and to-the-point. Welsh himself is a perfect example of this, sporting a shaved head, white t-shirt, and intense stare at nearly all times. The duo’s album covers are another testament to this, with Impersonator, as well as last year’s Turns Turns Turns EP, consisting of nothing more than a blank canvas with bold, black lettering. While the rest of the Montreal music scene seems more focused with out crazy-ing one another, it’s refreshing to see an artist appreciating the beauty found in cold minimalism.

Nowhere is this appreciation more fully realized, however, than in the duo’s stark, minimalist approach to synth pop, with Impersonator coming off more as a singer/songwriter album frozen in time. The fact that Majical Cloudz operates as a duo can’t be more highly stressed: Impersonator is built on Welsh’s vocals, Matthew Otto’s lush-yet-sparse synths, and very little else. The ambient melodies and droning soundscapes of tracks like This is Magic, Illusion, and Silver Rings create an arresting sense of stillness and intimacy, making Welsh’s booming vocals – free of any manipulation whatsoever – all the more haunting and hyper-real.

The tracks that make up Impersonator do build – if not in the most subtle ways possible – but do so to add tension and scope to the songs repeating structures. Take Bugs Don’t Buzz, for instance, a harrowing ballad built mainly on three squirmy piano notes that is pushed higher and higher into the stratosphere as each skyward verse increases its blow. The track never drifts from its sparse, three-note structure, but the gravity of its simple composition becomes heavier and heavier as blaring synth blasts crumble any barriers surrounding it.

But just because the duo prefers their sound to carry a dense emotional impact doesn’t mean they can’t be damn catchy as well. Childhood’s End, the album’s first single, carries a sweet, almost music box like melody bathed in lush, synthetic strings, and would easily make for the albums sweetest moment were it not for its tragic, traumatizing subject matter. Mister is probably the closest it comes to being danceable, despite being just as skeletal and sparse as the rest of the album. A few tracks even rely on looped vocal tracks to construct much of the melody, which can act as both a positive and a negative. While the schizoid vocal loops in the title track come off as busy and overthought (virtually the only track I would use the words to describe anything), the hypnotic gasps that flow through Turns Turns Turns craft a haunting yet pleasantly romantic atmosphere.

It’s Welsh’s singing and lyricism, however, that makes Impersonator such a truly unique album. The raw, unfiltered vocals utilized throughout Impersonator are somewhat similar to those used by Laurel Halo on last year’s Quarantine, as both vocalists added a chilling sense of humanity to counteract the digitized landscapes of their respected albums. But while Halo’s vocals were almost purposefully ugly and strained, Welsh sings with a soulful, powerful croon to translate his pain and fears into the most honest and relatable way possible. Not a trace of his vocals ever come off as whiny, but nearly every line sung throughout Impersonator is stark and vulnerable, yet incredibly melodic and even catchy, making such bleak, direct lyrics as “Someone died / Gunshots right outside / Your father, he is dead” or “I don’t think about dying alone” incredibly hummable yet emotionally crushing.

Majical Cloudz are far from the first to bring about a warming sense of humanity through electronic music (it’s been Boards of Canada’s calling card for decades), but rarely do you see a synth-based “singer-songwriter” album pulled off so convincingly. The songs Majical Cloudz write could easily have been accompanied by a baby grand piano or acoustic guitar and lost little of their emotional impact. But by utilizing a synth-based soundtrack just as organic, emotional, and unadulterated as Welsh’s voice and lyrics, Impersonator successfully matches man with machine and gives each an equally powerful, equally human voice.