Record Review: Midlake – Antiphon

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The first time I heard Midlake was 2007’s The Trials of Van Occupanther. There was something about the way it so effortless evoked the tone of music from the seventies that both unnerved and impressed me. And let me clarify – it wasn’t simply that songs like Young Bride, Roscoe and Branches emulated the instrumentation or affectations of what I’ve heard on the radio my entire life from that era, it was more the sense that all of those nameless, hazy musical backdrops of my early life – rides in the car, parties at relatives’ houses, grainy television themes – had created this kind of archetypal residue in the foundations of my memories for those early, developmental years and these guys were somehow able to tap directly into those experiences by their choice of chord progressions, vocal melodies and arrangements.

Several years later in 2010 I wrote an anticipatory blog about The Courage of Others. The music service MAYA was a regular stomping ground for me at the time and it was on that site I first registered news of the the record that immediately suggested the band had done it again. There was something about the cover of the record that evoked – strangely specifically – Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. I’m not entirely sure why as the images have nothing to do with one another. Likewise upon hearing the record the same comparison arose in spite of the fact that the two records sound nothing alike. In contemplating this I was I was left with the idea that once again Midlake had tapped into some primordial music-memory deep in my subconscious. Sabbath was something I was aware of long before I ever heard it, primarily due to older cousins and first and second grade classmates (circa ’83/’84) whose older siblings had exposed them to the band. I would walk around the schoolyard with my Duran Duran pin while the Jeff Wilson’s of the class would sport their Sabbath-ness. This created a vague sense impression that fed into what I would later learn was my synesthesia, the point at which my senses all blurred together so that the Earthy tones of bands like Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac and Zeppelin come in at my ears but are processed in a myriad of auditory/visual/textual ways. Perhaps this is getting away from the point of this article, that Midlake’s new record Antiphon – due out on Bella Union on November 4th in Europe and 5th in the States – is yet another in a series of these anachronistic entries in Midlake’s chronicling of the in-between places of the modern world; the deep sub-strata of our mind and memory.

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The album begins with the title track. I’ll say upfront that the tone the song Antiphon sets is consistent throughout. The band is nothing if not deliberate, and they are exceptionally talented at cultivating specific tones and timbres on this record so that it functions not only as continued throw-back to musical eras of yesteryear, but also the aeon-old archetype of musical storytelling, a cultural language that can transcend the technology and techniques of the day, the trappings of genre or the fads of the moment. The track, like the record, is named after the centuries-old responsory style of singing once primarily associated with the rituals of the Christian religion. Fitting, as vocals have always been the major anchor of Midlake’s music, the vocal melodies and harmonies often the key to the technique that makes up their unique and instantly recognizable sound. This is a point of interest on Antiphon because just prior to its construction lead singer Tim Smith left the band. Now, the loss of a lead singer can often cripple a band, especially one whose sound is so steeped in it’s vocals. However after reading a recent interview with guitarist/vocalist Eric Pulido it is interesting to note that this may actually end up being the next logical step for a band that was already steeped in unique approaches to multi-layered vocals. Certainly on songs like Provider, The Old and The Young and even the faintly prog-ish Vale the approach, while apparently pushing Pulido to the front at times, clearly puts the song before the idea of the group having a ‘frontman’.

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Midlake are an anomaly even in this era of more Earthy, beard-rock, most of which I am not a fan of. A lot of modern acoustic or proto acts wear their sound as an affectation – a badge to let you know what camp they build their fire at. Midlake is too deep in the woods, too lost in the exploration of how the past can intersect with the present and push through to make a more interesting future to be concerned with or kowtow to any scene or sound. They are their own band, and we are all the better for it.

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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