THE ANTLERS: FAMILIARS (2014)
1) Palace; 2) Doppelgänger; 3) Hotel; 4) Intruders; 5) Director; 6) Parade; 7) Surrender; 8) Refuge; 9) Revisited.
Apparently, the effort that it took to record Burst Apart sucked whatever energy The Antlers had right out of their marrows — and instead of spending the next three years relaxing and recuperating some of it, they decided that they would rather capitalize on the situation. Lesson number one: if you have no energy to make an album, make an album with no energy whatsoever and present it as your latest and greatest artistic statement. And don't worry about bad publicity — you'll always have Pitchforkmedia, as long as you stay within certain working limits.
There is an undeniable unity (easy to say «monotonousness») to the seven lengthy pieces on Familiars, and an undeniable «ambience» that separates them from the old indie-rock idiom and brings them closer to stuff that has been gruesomely labeled as «post-rock» in the past — the oceanic soundscapes of Sigur Rós and the like. In a way, the Antlers had always worked close to that style, but Familiars pushes them even further in the «music where nothing happens, or at least nothing happens fast enough» direction. Now, everything, in any given track, at any given moment, happens at the intersection of soft-as-silk late-night jazz guitar; atmospheric, mood-setting digital and analog keyboards; calmly funebral wailings of trumpets and trombones; and Peter Silberman's vocals, the very same ones that we are well used to but even more reminiscent now of a half-paralyzed person in the middle of a nervous breakdown.
In other words, Familiars is the soundtrack to a deeply internalized and restrained personal tragedy. Think of it as the equivalent of a Cure album in a world where musical hooks and dynamic playing are considered dangerous for the moral health of the population and are strictly prohibited under pain of death, lobotomy, or one year in the Lana del Rey correctional facility, so you have to come up with a credible substitute that could somehow convey the same idea of suffering, loneliness, and empathy, but without, you know, music in the most common sense of the word. It is hard to make this work, but I think it can be done. The question is, whether it can be done by a band like the Antlers.
My personal vote is «no»: I find Familiars to be at best boring, and at worst, irritating. There is nothing wrong about using your instruments to create a statically melancholic atmosphere, but there still has to be something special about it. You might be a genius like Brian Eno, using two or three chord changes, but finding just the right ones and just the perfect keyboard tone and depth and warmth of sound for them. You might be the above-mentioned Sigur Rós, trying out all sorts of combinations until you find the ones that work. You might think about crescendos, quirky overdubs, subliminal messages, whatever. For Familiars, Silberman came up with exactly one (1) idea, and carried it out in several variations for fifty minutes — and it wasn't even a totally undeniably jaw-droppingly awesome idea in the first place.
This crude, but honest, explanation takes care of the «boring» part. Where it gets «irritating» is in the department of «adequacy»: like Bon Iver or any of his colleagues in the «dream-whatever» department («dream-folk», «dream-pop», etc.), Silberman's latest creation clearly strives to induce catharsis. All those «majestic» keyboards, «saintly humble» guitars, and particularly Peter's broken-heartedly romantic deliveries are integral parts of one big plot — to make your reaction towards Familiars a religious one. The preachy lyrics are certainly religious (e.g., "to find the peace within the combat where we're standing, we have to make our history less commanding" on ʽSurrenderʼ, etc.), but the way they are sung and the way they are surrounded by instruments and echoes gives the impression of one great big Church of The Antlers, and the whole album is one big seven-part Mass that you'd rather attend while standing on your feet (unless you actually get the urge to fall on your knees). But why should you? To subscribe to the Church of The Antlers makes about as much sense as subscribing to any other Church just because it's nice and cool in the great cathedral and the big organ up above looks really awesome.
For some reason, one thing that really irritates me about the lyrics is Silberman's odd attraction to expletives this time around, be it the "fuck now, I'm outta here tomorrow" refrain of ʽHotelʼ or the embarrassingly crude "right when the blizzard ends, they throw a fucking huge parade..." intro to ʽParadeʼ. I suppose that the idea is, if we're building this new type of musical church, we might as well set up our own rules, including the right to swear at Mass. But any word has its preferable context, and the F-word, nothing as we have against it in general, sounds gimmicky and stupid when sung in that exaggeratedly «beautiful» tone by Mr. Silberman. He has the undeniable right to count it as part of his artistic vision, I have the undeniable right to call it stupid, you have the undeniable right to see it your way, we'll all be happy some day or in the afterlife.
Unfortunately, commenting on the individual songs is an impossibility for me, since great care has been taken for all of them to set the exact same mood, and my descriptions are all focused on moods, not chords. If it were made more clear that this is strictly «elevator muzak», a background sort of hum to accompany your glass of whiskey at sundown, Familiars would be forgivable and forgettable. But since the album sounds like it is making a Big Statement, yet the band members all behave like refrigerated, defrosted, and microwaved members of a post-Waters-era Pink Floyd, Familiars ultimately becomes offensive — one more reminder of what the hell is so goddamn wrong with «serious» music in the 21st century. Thumbs down.