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Deerhunter- Microcastle (Audioscribbler)

Deerhunter: Microcastle

August 12, 2008 by Simon Catling (Edit)

Deerhunter are an important band to have around at the moment, and it’s a shame that a leak has overshadowed their third LP ‘Microcastle’ and warranted its early release; there are but a handful of bands really striving to push the boundaries in the increasingly confined space that time and musical evolution have inflicted upon those of the predominantly guitar-based persuasion. Having got their raw phase out of the system with the release of debut ‘Turn It Up Faggot’ in 2005, the Atlanta five piece (although four on this record) put out arguably one of the most forward thinking albums of the last few years twelve months later with the superlative ‘Cryptograms’. On their debut, Deerhunter had given a hint of what might have been to come with ever changing dynamics, lyrics fading into the background, drums forcing their way to the front of songs and heavy bass lines forcing guitars to regress into mush. Only on ‘Cryptograms’ however did Bradford Cox manage to realise the intentions of the year before; sweeping ambient instrumentals linked songs that themselves seemed to drift in from the ether before stealthily returning to whence they came. The whole tone of the album was that of something completely shapeless and yet perfectly crafted. Despite not featuring in the charts, the album was recognised enough for Pitchfork to award the album a ‘Best New Music’ mention and for numerous other critics to garnish it with high praise.

Fast forward two years and the makeup of Deerhunter has changed markedly. An increase in popularity in their native USA has culminated in a support slot for industrial pioneers Nine Inch Nails and in between albums Bradford Cox has released his own stellar solo album under the moniker of Atlas Sound. In a recent interview Cox also alluded to the fact that he would be returning to more straight ahead pop sensibilities after his previous two spaced-out panoramic outings, stating that ‘Cryptograms’ in particular was “narcissistic [in] how much it dwells on adolescence and the whole ambient-droney-experimental side of things and creating soundscapes and things, it just got really tired and old.”

Any worries of a complete abandonment of the formula that made their previous album such a captivating listen can be laid to rest thankfully; opener ‘Come For Me (Slowly)’, whilst tighter and clearer in production, remains a vast and sweeping statement of intent. The following track ‘Agoraphobia’ though is a startling step in a different direction; a mellowing, insecure sounding track that seems to harp back to the 60’s and simple acoustic flower pop as much as it does from anything surrounding it in the present. ‘Never Stops’ too recalls the Velvet Underground’s hard, senseless percussion juxtaposing the vocals before a steady strain of distortion and noise briefly uncouples the song from its tracks; a further indication of Deerhunter’s step towards the accessible and cemented yet further in the more formulaic structure of quiet/loud/quiet/loud verses and choruses. It’s not until ‘Little Kids’ in fact that we hear something warped away from its linear point a hollow loose sound is engulfed by showers of concentrated noise and changing pitches submerging the percussion, and gently melding the vocals into the wall of sound that they’re creating. Once again however the temptation to allow the whole thing to drift and merge with the next track on the album is checked and the title track is another of bleak and isolated beginnings that eventually kick starts into life with a whirlwind of sleek guitars and wistful murmurings; a beautiful and poised ending that contains that bit of valium to take the edge off the distortion.

At this point the listener could be forgiven for noticing a touch of, not disjointedness, but certainly something a little stop start in the opening half of the album- at least in comparison to their previous ventures. This seems to partly be what’s intended though; in trying to dumb down the perceived excess of the previous album, Deerhunter are chopping up their sound and presenting it in small segments of carefully pored over noise. In cases of tracks such as the short ‘Calvary Scars’ and ‘Activa’ this can seemingly cut them adrift from the other tracks on here; yet in arguably the focal point of the entire LP, ‘Nothing Ever Happened’, this decision seems inspired. The track’s pulse lies in Josh Fauver’s simplistic driving bass and Moses Archuleta’s stoic drum line that sticks to its task rigidly throughout, allowing the myriad of guitars to gently simmer and burble in the background as Cox’s vocals cut through the two. The key theme throughout ‘Microcastle’ seems to be of life’s relentless pace and the realisation that nothing lasts forever; ‘Nothing Ever Happened’ certainly rings true of this as the lead vocalist murmurs, “nothing ever happened to me, life just passed and flashed right through me”; there’s a definite sense of maturity to the singer’s lyrics and perspective, something far removed from previous releases at times adolescent themes.

From then on in it’s nothing other than a delight as a catchy, pop laden guitar hook joins the percussion and gradually allows the hitherto bubbling feedback and overdrive behind it to rise up and scrawl a tapestry of graffiti over the central melody and set in motion an equally succinct but soaring passage of music that leaves you breathless. It’s here that the idea to keep the tracks apart makes perfect sense and ‘Saved By Old Times’ pleasingly veers back towards the mellow 60’s ambience heard earlier on in the album. Ironically it’s at this point that the group throw caution to the wind and hence the final three tracks on ‘Microcastle’ are the most comfortably positioned of the entire LP. The aforementioned ‘Saved By Old Times’ compliments perfectly the shimmering, swaying ‘These Hands’ that in turn cools right down into a muffled piano that bleeds perfectly into the album’s closing effort, ‘Twilight at the Carbon Lake’; a grandiose finale that imitates sincere balladry before letting loose in a blizzard of sound. It’s as though the toll of staying disciplined and reigning in the previous eleven tracks has finally proven too much for the group, who unleash an unhinged frenetic attack that still manages to stay eerily comforting; this truly is Deerhunter at their best.

‘Microcastle’ then is in many ways the sort of record you’d expect to hear from the Atlantans and yet something quite, quite different. The seamless shift between emotions and soundscapes isn’t necessarily always strong on this album, and it does at times seem a pity that Bradford Cox felt the need to dissect, separate and section off his ideas away from each other. Yet on the other hand, this is an album as painstakingly deliberated over as ‘Cryptograms’ was, and an even further step away from the ramshackle rawness of ‘Turn It Up Faggot’. Within each cluster of sound comes the same range of emotion, poise and beauty that was whitewashed all over both their second LP and Atlas Sound’s debut; the difference this time is that the listener is delivered it in more manageable, digestible chunks. While the result means that it may not stand up quite as well as their previous effort in future years, it shows yet again that Deerhunter are a band refusing to accept their limits and for this reason alone we should be more than grateful.

Date Released: Out Now (Physical release 28th October)
Label: 4AD Records

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