Entry Point: Matter
Highlight: Off The Floor/Half The World
Melancholia Hymns is the first full-length album from Arcane Roots since 2013’s Blood & Chemistry, and their first release since 2015’s EP – Heaven & Earth. The band has undergone change, via the departure of their founding drummer Daryl Atkins after nine years, leaving Andrew Groves as the only consistent member of the band since forming. The band has also undergone a musical genesis of sorts, with guitars making way for keyboards and electronic elements in the bands sound. The guitars still exist but are no longer necessarily dominant part of the songs and mixes.
The album kicks off with Before Me, a six-minute sampler of what’s to come. The first 90 seconds are comprised of layered synthesised drones, building to a distorted crescendo when the vocals enter. In my mind Boards of Canada is the obvious point of comparison whenever someone uses this type of distortion, though the vocals instantly bring it back to being an Arcane Roots song. Albeit, one that is using a different palette than previous releases. The guitars, bass, drums, and vocals of previous releases are present but now take a back seat to synthesisers and drum machines. The whole mix for this song is intentionally clipped (distorted) at times and while I can see where they are going with it, it’s either too much or not enough for my tastes. In the case of Before Me, I feel like it is too much.
Matter is the 2nd track on the album and is a good sampler of what the album on a whole offers and feels like a microcosm of what the new Arcane Roots sound is. A busy tom-heavy drum motif provides momentum while the guitar and vocals fill in space through the verses, and then when the chorus hits the inverse happens. The drums simplify what they are playing and the guitar mimics the feel of the tom-heavy drum motif. The second verse seems the drum motif replaced with a similar thing but on the electronic drums, it’s a nice variance on the idea. Matter is the best example of how Arcane Roots do traditional song structures on the album. It’s actually a three and a half minute song with an instrumental segue tacked on the end of it for another minute and a half. It’s something that occurs often on the album and unfortunately doesn’t always add to the experience of the album as a whole.
Indigo starts off with a very pleasant riff built on bass harmonics, while vocalist Andrew Groves sings a very heavily delayed melody.
Once the synthesisers come in they bury the other instruments in the mix, which is a shame considering the subtlety of the earlier bass riff was too good to only be used for a few bars.
Indigo builds and builds, the vocals are the main constant to the sound, with guitar and keyboards swapping out certain melodic components of the sound with each iteration.
I’m curious how the three-piece band intends on playing these songs live with so many layers, if there will be additional musicians brought in to play keyboards or if backing tracks will be the order of the day. At certain times there are piano, glockenspiel, guitar, pads, bass, and drums all playing, not to mention the vocals. on top of that. That shouldn’t affect the outcome of this review, I’m not reviewing their live sound, I’m reviewing the album they have released this week.
The end of Indigo has a short separate unnamed piece of music in it, at least it feels too disconnected from Indigo to be a part of it. It also feels like the first part of a larger song hidden elsewhere on the album.
Off the Floor came out with a video prior to the album release. It’s the closest to an “old school” Arcane Roots song as there is on the album. The synthesisers are much lower in the mix and the guitar is once again the hero of the band, allowing the bespoke Andrew Groves riffs to shine. It’s the first song on the album that carries a lot of energy with it and it’s a welcome addition to the album after the three prior tracks that never quite got there.
I’m torn writing this review because I am a huge Arcane Roots fan. I think Andrew Groves is one of the most unique and impressive guitarists of his genre and era. This fact, more than any other, stands out to me as to why I’m not enjoying this album as much as I wish I was. He has traded his guitar in for a keyboard on some songs and he doesn’t have the same live-wire feeling on the keyboard. Listen to the guitar work in Off the Floor and you’ll hear examples of what this man is capable of with six strings.
I mentioned earlier that some of the songs are a bit long. Off the Floor is a great example of why that curation is needed, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s long enough to plant an earworm and move on. A few bars nipped and tucked here and there would have left the album less bloated. Off the Floor realistically is a 3-minute song rather than the four and a quarter minutes listed on the album. It’s the long drones and segues between songs that contribute to the album not feeling as precise or as impactful as it could.
Curtains channels a certain maudlin feel, it’s slow and brings my mind towards a Massive Attack sound for the first half. Building through layering and sheer noise into something I can’t picture Massive Attack ever doing. I’d love to have heard more restraint and have the song end before heavy section at the end. It feels unnecessary and more like something that was thrown in to appease the fans live more than what the song needed. Again, 45 seconds of drone round out the track that is Curtains, after the song itself feels finished.
I feel that writing this I am being far more critical than I normally am. I love Arcane Roots and I know they can do better than what I’m hearing. The ideas are good, the execution of them is hurt by a lack of restraint or curation. There are segments on this album that could have been cut and left me at least feeling like it was a stronger release. The heavy ending of Curtains, in my opinion, would have been better off as its own entity and that would have improved both Curtains and made the new song feel more deliberate.
Solemn is one of the few songs that starts with a guitar (or at least not a synth pad), coming midway through the album it feels like a nice change of pace. The start of Solemn feels like fertile new ground for Arcane Roots, though rather than following the idea, the chorus takes a step back towards a more generic feel for the band.
It strikes me as the first time this album that the vocals have overlapped and strayed away from straight harmonies, similar to a call and response, a technique sadly under-utilised in modern music.
Arp, seemingly short for arpeggio or the arpeggiator function on a synthesiser is driven forward by exactly that, a repeating arpeggiated synthesiser melody. The first half of the song is one of the more restrained parts of the album, allowing the listener to focus on the vocals and allowing room for the vocals to exist without having to compete with other instruments. The second half of the song sees the drums and guitars kick in and the vocals pushed further back in the mix. Yet again, the song features a synthesised drone for nearly 30 seconds at the end before launching into…
Fireflies. Starting off with keyboard and vocals, Fireflies is a slow soulful track. Electronic drums build on the vocals and keyboards creating a palette similar to the one used multiple times elsewhere on the album. The vocals are at times difficult to interpret with Andrew Groves’ vocal sensibilities tending towards a more musical and open pronunciation of words rather than necessarily finishing each syllable, emphasising the vowel more. The “oooh” and “aaah” nature of the vocal delivery is then compounded my some of the reverb on the vocals at times. It’s very musical but much in the same way I struggled with some Dead Letter Circus lyrics for the same reason, the performances are on the more musical than the lyrical end of the delivery spectrum. Vocal criticisms aside, Fireflies builds much as other songs on the album have from the keyboards and vocals. Electronic drums come in and out to provide textural and rhythmic elements. As the song progresses the vocal effects are hidden more in the mix and the vocals feel more legible. The song has the inevitable feel of building to yet another heavy section with distorted guitars and screaming, though thankfully this time the restraint that I was wanting earlier in the album is present. The song threatens, but never escalates to “full rock”.
Everything (All At Once) is the most traditional feeling Arcane Roots song on the album and is powered along by the drums and dirty bass. The repetitive vocal refrain of “Take Me” provides an anchor for the song to vary itself up riff-wise while still feeling a little like a traditional rock song. Though I would have liked to have heard the chorus one more time at the end, as for a 3:42 song, the chorus isn’t heard after the two and a half minute mark. The last minute feels like a very heavy bridge but is actually an outro. If nothing else, this song will absolutely go off live.
Half the World is the longest song on the album, something that the last two Arcane Roots releases have also done. It’s a slow song, the comedown after the attack of Everything (All At Once). Building off drums and hand claps and acoustic guitar and the most present vocals from Andrew Groves on the album, it’s one of the first times on the album where space feels like a tool being used rather than ignored, at least in the verses.
The chorus suffers somewhat from what is emblematic on this album, there is so much going on sonically, the whole audio spectrum feels like it is being pushed and as a result, you can’t figure out what you should be listening to, there isn’t a sense of curation in the mix. I’d love to hear some more subtlety added, “Oh, the guitar is about to do something cool, I know that because the other instruments just dropped back a bit” something like that, anything like that, be it in the arrangement or the mix. Even equalising some frequencies out of the synth pads to make them interfere less with the frequencies of the vocals and bass guitar. The poor neglected bass guitar, on this album you never really had a chance to compete. It’s such a shame as the times where the bass guitar is evident the playing and ideas are really nice.
Half The World is one of my favourite tracks on the album. It feels like it is the most comfortable meshing of the new elements to the sound to good solid songwriting.
The main thing missing from this album for me, is the big single, the fan favourite. 2011’s Left Fire had You Are, 2013’s Blood & Chemistry had Resolve, 2015’s Heaven & Earth had… well it didn’t have a standout single. Heaven & Earth was comprised of five, five-plus minute prog rock songs. Their structures didn’t lend themselves to being released as singles, that’s fine.
There are times where Melancholia Hymns feels like a pet project that should have been released not as Arcane Roots, but as a different project entirely. Though with line-up changes, this may be the new normal for what these three guys do.
The Arcane Roots DNA for me has always been not so much bound to the instrumentation, but to the songwriting. They have always been a “progressive” band in the sense that their song structures aren’t always the traditional pop or rock ABABCB. You Are and Home for example are two songs that are essentially one long six minute song, the chorus only happens twice in You Are and doesn’t appear again after the two and a half minute mark, yet the rest of the song(s) feels like it is cohesive. It’s not a bunch of ideas loosely tacked together, they are ideas that have been worked on and feel familiar to the audience. Home is essentially the slowed down chorus of You Are, with different lyrics, but still very much part of the same thematic material.
What Arcane Roots has done on Melancholia Hymns is taken a sidestep in their direction. It’s a musical pivot.
I look forward to listening to this album more and trying to dissect if it’s a slow burn or just not what I want to hear from one of my favourite bands.
People new to Arcane Roots or fans of synth-based alt-rock may love this album more than they like any other Arcane Roots music. I’m unable to objectively review this album because as I’ve mentioned before, I love this band. I got sent the video for You Are when it was first launched through Kerrang! My friend Lucky, who went on to photograph my wedding introduced them to me and I’ve been a huge fan ever since my first listen to You Are, now six years ago.
Blood & Chemistry was one of my albums of the year in 2013 when it came out. Heaven & Earth was one of my albums of the year in 2015, despite it being a five-track EP, it punches well above its weight.
Melancholia Hymns may well be turn out to be one of my favourite albums of 2017, but on first listens I’m not sure that I can compartmentalize my raw emotional response to it. It’s different and
I’m not adverse to bands changing their sound, but in this case, it’s different and it feels like it has dulled one of the key elements of what Arcane Roots was. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is, maybe I’m trying to over analyse it. Maybe the songs just aren’t as good as the earlier albums and the change in instrumentation is masking that? Maybe my tastes have changed? I’m sure they have. Regardless, Melancholia Hymns will annoy some fans, excite others and hopefully open up Arcane Roots to a bunch of new fans.
Melancholia Hymns is out now and can be found here.