The Helium Age

Arms Of Kismet

Wampus Multimedia, 2016

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Destiny versus free will; the enduring allure of memory; a condor who scavenges stories; Kerouac, Hemingway & Fitzgerald (not a law firm); and helium balloons. Indeed, what could this combination possibly herald but a new album from Arms Of Kismet?

Surely one of the most apt stage names around, Arms Of Kismet is the musical alter ego of singer-songwriter / multi-instrumentalist Mark Doyon, who on this fourth AOK album delivers another set of trenchant observations on fate, mortality, love and art, firmly wrapped inside his own unique aesthetic.

Said aesthetic is important to mention because the vibe feels like a major ingredient in this confection; the voice in which Doyon spins his stories in fact feels like part of the story itself. Emerging from a cool backdrop of loops, digital percussion and synths, his analog guitar and voice feel like a warm breeze. The electronics and Doyon’s often deadpan vocal delivery create some distance that forces the listener to work a little harder to figure out what he’s really after, but the words—the words engage, again and again.

In terms of influences, Doyon cites Dylan, the Clash, the Flaming Lips, the Kinks, Lou Reed and Jonathan Richman, and it’s not hard to catch little flashes of each on an album that manages to be both aggressively arty and decidedly playful.

“Angels In The Snow” opens things up on a frantic, discordant note, a Bo Diddley beat off its Ritalin, as Doyon sketches a fragment of early childhood memory before ending the song in cacophony. “Careless World” fast forwards to the artist as a young man, “writing at the Broke Café” and dreaming of Hemingway, Kerouac, and the Dalai Lama while formulating a worldview that revels in the randomness of the universe. Eventually the electric guitar comes slicing through the chilly layers of keyboards as Brian Wilson-esque background vocals push the tune into the stratosphere.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

A punchy guitar figure takes center stage for the surging, buoyant “Carnival By The Sea,” which manages to be both nostalgic and celebratory in recalling the youthful exploits of “that old gang of mine.” (And indeed, the song also features a careening solo from Eamon Loftus, who previously hung with Doyon in Wampeters.) Still, it’s the little touches that matter most: the opening lines sung in French, the sampled sounds creating a textured, cinematic feel, the dreamy bridge, and the reference to a calliope (a favorite word ever since “Blinded By The Light”).

As we’ve come to expect, there’s something slightly off-kilter about every song here: the skittering rhythm track adding an off-balance tension to the nostalgic “Greyhound”; the self-described “insouciance” of a rumination on mortality (“Belly Up”) set at a funeral that pokes fun at “scornful mourners” (a wonderfully assonant phrase; this man loves words); or the clever arrangement of “The Condor,” a pulsing meditation on creativity that adds new elements with every verse.

“On The Tracks” feels like another captured memory, a reflection on the ephemeral nature of romantic passion that matches Roy Orbison guitars with Human League synths. Meanwhile, “Forever” returns to thoughts of mortality while filling your ears with swirling synths, densely arranged vocals, and a theater-of-the-mind sound collage for a bridge.

Doyon teams with Grahame Davies for the late-Beatles literary-history mindgame “F. Scott And Everything He Wrote,” a number that discovers a fresh twist every time it threatens to become just a bit too precious. Wonderfully airy closer “S.O.S.”—which here stands for “same old story”—celebrates creativity itself (“Discard your dread and fright / Pick up your pen and write / You are a cipher with a meteor’s message / On a flight through hollow space”), with characteristically frisky guitar, synths and Hammond organ building steadily toward an ecstatic, celebratory finish. “Don’t give up / And don’t give in / Don’t give up / And then don’t do it again” sings Doyon, a mantra any creator will recognize.

On The Helium Age, as throughout the Arms Of Kismet catalog, it often feels like Doyon is playing a character, standing off to one side and narrating the action with a sort of cool bemusement, a winking oracle. That and his fondness for synths and vocal filters and electronic rhythm sections can create a bit of a barrier between him and the audience, but also an element of mystery: who is the real Mark Doyon?

In fact, he’s told us already. “I am mischievous,” he declares in “Carnival By The Sea,” and that single line lies at the heart of his art. Doyon plays with expectations without ever surrendering to them, delivering idiosyncratic, more than a little subversive indie-rock that’s simultaneously sunny and dark, insightful and whimsical, that stares into the frozen eyes of a horse on a merry-go-round and describes both the terror and the joy of riding around in circles.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 2016 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Wampus Multimedia, and is used for informational purposes only.