Islands’ apocalyptically infectious debut is one of those discs I’ve worn down to the seams. Uniformly incredible, Return To The Sea zipped through sunny calypso and thrumming hip-hop beats and morbidly catchy tales of brittle bones, catastrophic volcanic explosions, and setting up home inside of a whale.
Their latest, meanwhile, following the abrupt departure of drummer Jaime Thompson (formerly J’aime Tambeur), is all pained, haunting darkness: lyrics obsessing over hemorrhages and hangings and dog attacks are buoyed by theatrical, ever-building string arrangements, stabbing drums, and the insistent warble of multi-instrumentalist Nick Thorburn. It’s a bloodbath, really, but a strangely pretty one nonetheless.
But for all the ominous energy that pulses through this disc, it never quite captures the sheer breathlessness of
Arm’s Way. “The Arm” sets off the album’s sprawl, beginning with lush violins and synths that, with a sudden curdling howl, give way just as quickly to a stomping guitar line, staccato piano, and lilting harmonies. Next up, “Pieces Of You” is pure jauntiness, the sweetly sinister lyrics (“They found your bones in the homes / Of a thousand little gnomes / Who’d taken pieces for decoration”) paired with silky instrumentation and Thorburn’s soaring voice.
“J’aime Vous Voire Quitter” hurtles a not-so-subtle attack at Tambeur (“You said you had my back / But I was attacked by a pack of dogs frothing at the mouth / Stabbed in the face, glass in my guts”). The crunching, chugging guitars and snarled vocals soon give way to, of all things, a warp-speed “La Bamba” breakdown. It’s scathing, visceral, and a little silly -- which is
Arm’s Way hits its peak with lead single “Creeper,” a synthy disco-pop stunner that demands your attention right from the start as Thorburn’s jagged croon marbles with the swirling guitars: “Right from the start I was stabbed in the heart / Didn't know I wasn’t breathing / Didn’t know I had been bleeding.” It’s a strange sing-along, to be sure, but delightful nonetheless.
Unfortunately, that’s where the momentum begins to break down. Sure, there are some essential moments to be found here that make each song worth at least a listen, from the fragile falsetto of “Kids Don’t Know Shit” to the “Lust For Life” jam in the middle of “Life In Jail.” But where the rapid-fire tempo changes of Return To The Sea were routinely surprising and inventive, they’ve become too predictable, jammed in inevitably in each song. Not to mention, it’s all awash in a despairing hopelessness that belies the sinister yet bouncy charm of their debut.
Ultimately, Arm’s Way gets bogged down in its own baroque sensibilities, piling on section after section after seven-minute track as the album shambles towards its seventy-minute runtime. Islands still is largely brilliant, evidenced in the album’s stunning first half, but the potential is a little too squandered here, and there’s nothing worse than that from a group as capable and creative as
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