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Antony & the Johnsons: Swanlights
Antony and the Johnsons are set to release their fourth studio album Swanlights this month, demonstrating a triumphant display of instrumentals, larger-than-life imagery of love, loss and sorrow and the usual high dosage of orchestral bravado. Fans can pick up a limited edition copy of a 144 page book of the visual art and writing of frontman, vocalist and pianist Antony Hegarty, available in retail stores this October.
The group's sound has always felt operatic; if it weren't for Hegarty's angsty folk lyrics, listeners could easily envision the dramatic opening of a curtain during the tremulous first notes of most Antony and the Johnsons' tracks. Past the opening bars however, the band habitually forays into a canvas of orchestral noise-pop-turned-punk, with the company of violins, 'cello, horns, versatile drums and the always present piano.
Their first releases came to life with the help of Lou Reed, who took note, incorporated the band into a project of his, and made a guest appearance on the late nineties released EP The Lake. Other noteworthy endeavors include the band's melodramatic adaptation of Beyonce's 'Crazy in Love', in which the pop tune is nearly unrecognizable with its slowed pace, full-throated vibrato and flute melody. The track demonstrates that even when using another artist's work, Antony and the Johnsons does not recycle so much as it produces a metamorphosis.
Hegarty himself transforms through song; soft spoken, round faced, with a hallo of unruly black hair, the artist turns into something else entirely when delivering his full-throated melodies on stage. His angles sharpens, his voice shrills and dips, and the air seems to stand still.
Swanlights presents eleven tracks of still more slowed introspection. The opening song 'Everything is New' sets the pace for an album that sounds at once triumphant and disturbing as it gives way at times to frantic noise in between major chord melodies. 'Ghost' bids an exorcism of Hegarty's inner demons and showcases the band's penchant for Broadway-worthy harmonies, due perhaps to his professed influence by Boy George. Unlike the slurred lyrics of 'Everything is New', Hegarty here uses an aggressive over-annunciation to bid his darkest thoughts banished. 'I'm In Love' is a rollicking, melancholic tune; 'And all my dreams they all came true/the day I lay my head on you' rhymes Hegarty in heady melodic bliss, 'Going to kiss you like a humming bird'. 'Violetta' is a 37-second-long instrumental interlude between songs. The title track features over six minutes of synthesized vocal layers, minor keys and horns. In the ballad-like 'The Spirit Was Gone' Hegarty dwells on what is presumably the process of death and dying, with the conclusion being 'It's hard to understand.' 'Thank You for Your Love' channels a little soul, incorporating warm emotion with an upbeat horn section. Bjork's collaboration on 'Fletta' sounds more like Bjork's original work than Hagerty's, with his voice reduced to a disappointing, watered-down shadow.
Hegarty plays with words and sounds; sometimes it is the melody that carries a song, rather than the often distorted and cryptic lyrics. While the album stumbles at times into old vices that threaten to make the band obsolete in the past three releases, this album's redeeming qualities outweigh its heavier notes. The media of sound, lyrics and visuals are fluid in the hands of Antony and the Johnsons; while the songs of Swanlights are unmistakably cut from the same cloth, nearly each one shines.
Album opener ‘San Angeles’ will get feet moving and booties shaking, but the rest of the album is decidedly more post-rock oriented. The influences of Pink Floyd only really make a grand appearance on psychedelic tune ‘Lunar Drift’, with its spooky synths and echoing bass line.
‘The Eliminator’ takes the listener back to the eighties again, as the repetitive electronic beat that is used sounds a lot like the 8-bit sounds that were the backdrop for many early eighties video games. Imagine the aforementioned desert wasteland turning 8-bit coloured.
The eighties also dominate in the strummed intro to ‘Martin Rev’, evoking memories of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’. You’d almost think the guys of Maserati had wished they were making music a few decades ago.
Ever since the 2012 release of their double a-side single, ‘Flying To Berlin/Husbands’, Savages have occupied an interesting space in the musical spectrums. With a mixture of old school post-punk and noise rock, they appear to be the perfect cross-section of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Swans. Their frenetic, dark, and sinisterly beautiful style has been receiving rave reviews the world over from critics and fans alike and their latest EP Adore Life is more of the same.
This is an album about love, but one would hesitate to call any of the tracks traditional love songs. Instead of falling into classic song writing tropes about how amazing love is, Savages instead approach the subject matter from a much darker perspective. This is an album about the true power of love, nd how that isn’t always a good thing.
The opening track, ‘The Answer’, heaves with energy from the get go, telling the story of an almost obsessive infatuation, with frontwoman Jehnny Beth (real name Camille Berthomier) repeating the words “If you don't love me/You don't love anybody” throughout the song just to drive home the fact that love can be a dangerous force. The hectic instrumentation provides a binary opposition to Beth’s sweet tones and is the perfect start to the record.
That is not to say that Adore Life is unrelenting in its aggression. This album is a mixture of forceful distortion, British post-punk and torch songs, and nowhere is this more apparent than on the song ‘Adore’. It’s slow, it’s bassy, it’s reverby (is that even a word?) it’s dark, but above all, beautiful. Concluding with a lyrical coda accompanied by a slow crescendo, it sounds like something you would hear in a smoky Paris café at 3AM. Make no mistakes, this is an early contender for one of the best songs of 2016.
Even towards the end of the album, they manage to keep the energy up. The penultimate track, ‘T.I.W.YG’, is almost a sequel to ‘The Answer’ in terms of style and narrative. The instrumentation provides an organised cacophony to truly drive home the fact that, this is what you get when you mess with love.
For what is only a second album, Adore Life shows a surprising maturity from the London-based female foursome. The lyrics are emotive without being contrived, the instrumentation is varied without being schizophrenic and the style is classic without being clichéd. This is more neo-post punk as opposed to post-punk revival and thank god it is, because the last thing we need is another attempt to revive a past genre. Remember the comment about the band being perfect cross-section of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Swans? This album hits the nail on the head, being equal parts a love song to the past and an ode to the fuzzy future.