Of Montreal Paralytic Stalks(Polyvinyl) Buy it from Insound
God, I hated this record on first listen. Looking back at my notes, you can’t move for phrases like “extremely off-putting", “indulgent madness”, “totally fucking awful” and, perhaps most damningly, “I think this is where I get off the boat with Of Montreal”. While I have come around somewhat to Paralytic Stalks’ charms, it is a prickly beast, and many of my initial misgivings about the record are not unfounded. Following on from the messy two that preceded it – 2008’s Skeletal Lamping and 2010’s False Priest – this album is full-on batshit insane; neither a place to begin with the band, nor one that especially rewards casual listening. But if you can get on board with the chaos, and perhaps even find some semblance of order in amongst the smorgasbord of sounds and self-effacing lyrics, it is faintly brilliant in places.
Of Montreal are now one of the most singular entities in modern alternative rock, unquestionably an enthralling act to follow, but for newcomers the tricky question of where to start looms large: Paralytic Stalks is their tenth studio LP, and there is an even larger catalogue of EPs and compilations filling in the gaps between releases, and their varied output is difficult to navigate. The band have shifted gears from whimsical 60s revivalism to a more glam-indebted pop sound and then again, more recently, to accommodate experimental and electronic sounds while still retaining that knack for a hook. In Kevin Barnes they have a tremendously talented and deeply fascinating frontman, who seemingly has no qualms about detailing his life in often uncomfortably fine detail, laced with classical imagery and copious references to figures of avant-garde cinema and literature. As with the changing nature of his music, the pendulum of Barnes’ lyricism swings back and forth between fictional, as with his glam alter ego Georgie Fruit, and intensely personal; this record is perhaps his most introspective and brutally honest work since 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? That album, considered by most to be their magnum opus, was a heady cocktail of mood changes, chemical imbalances and strained relationships, but it looks positively sane by way of comparison.
Barnes has traditionally led from the front in more than being the mere songwriter, helming close to every single instrument heard on the previous seven Of Montreal records as well as undertaking production duties almost exclusively, only adding additional performers in the live incarnation of the project. However, Paralytic Stalks is the sound of a fleshed-out band recording organically for the first time in a decade, and this proves a welcome break from the characteristically thin and shallow sound the band dabbles in. The mix is warm and densely layered, underpinned as usual by rich bass tones, only this time the electronic influences are dialled down slightly in favour of lavish arrangements and a newfound preponderance for woodwind, especially on Dour Percentage, which is a pleasant trip down some sunlight Parisian road, breezing by carelessly with a ridiculous flute solo for good measure. Barnes also favours a refreshing approach of little else than piano and his voice, as on Malefic Dowery which he questions if his wife’s “loyalty and affections are somehow a vulpine act of hostility” and whether she can still be his “rock ‘n roll ally”. You have to feel for long-suffering Nina, you really do.
But that’s not to say that Barnes has gone soft or Of Montreal have lost their groove, however: by and large the record refracts all the pomp and excess of the 70s through a freakish 21st century prism, strutting straight past the crossroads between the seemingly disparate genres of progressive rock and funk into unknown territory. We Will Commit Wolf Murder is a neat encapsulation of the overall sonic overstuffing across the record: initially, elegant strings ground the chaos, the drums alive with the kind of one-off fills and accents that belie Barnes’ past work, before it dramatically switches up around the four minute mark and mutates into an intensely unsettling disco nightmare, leaving Barnes barking that “it’s all in my head”. Similarly, openers Gelid Ascent and Spiteful Intervention come in swinging with wailing guitars, heavily treated vocals and great basslines; messy, but in the typically springy and fun manner the band are renowned for.
If the first half of Paralytic Stalks sees Of Montreal breathing new life into their sound, albeit still retaining the clutter and disorder, the second half is where the composure buckles, resulting in a decadent mess of experimentation and noodling that sprawls out for a staggering 37 minutes over just four tracks. It’s not all bad: Ye, Renew The Plaintiff contains a epic centrepiece jam, all pounding backline and squealing guitars while Barnes wails his wife’s name with a ferocity unmatched on the record and the closing two minutes of Authentic Pyrrhic Remission are a touching reminder of the fragility at Barnes’ core, as he gently whispers the line “hunted even in my dreams / there was no crime I did commit”. But both songs are plagued by issues that spoil those flashes of genius – on the former the playing is so sloppy I genuinely had to check if I had received a faulty rip and on the latter there is a peculiar seven minutes of discordant guitar throttling, serving effectively the same purpose that a hidden track break would. Exorcismic Bleeding Knife has an extremely uneasy atmosphere, haunted by dissonant strings not a million miles from a B-movie horror scene.
Which, taken as a whole, makes for a frustrating listen. There are some truly great moments here where the band crash around making glorious, daft, noisy pop music, but they stand at a stark counterpoint with the cloying experimental tendencies Barnes forces through. The tenderness and restraint exercised on a track such as Wintered Debts, all cooing oohs and gentle tinkling of ivories, are dumped out of focus by jarring feedback and slapdash mixing. A clear comparison can be drawn to Sufjan Stevens’ 2010 release The Age of Adz, which provoked much chatter at the time about Stevens’ embrace of electronic music and deeply confessional lyrics; similarly, here we find no shortage of ideas, but Kevin Barnes struggles to order them in a cohesive fashion and thus the execution is considerably less convincing. Maybe I’m just a stickler for their more poppy tendencies, but it feels that on Paralytic Stalks Barnes loses sight of the overall picture in favour of a piecemeal approach that relies on fleeting eureka moments to carry the weight of the bloat. He is his own worst enemy sometimes; but I guess that’s part of the fun.23 February, 2012 - 15:52 — Gabriel Szatan