O Emperor‘s Vitreous is ‘a sharp, complex take on pop music that gets more satisfying with every listen‘, says Neill Dougan.
In this hollow charade we call life, some things have an immediate impact: a hard kick in the bollocks, for example, or that first glorious hit of heroin (er, supposedly). These things are all well and good, but arguably in the long run it’s the ‘slow burn’ pleasures, the aspects of life that you really have to work at (y’know – raising a child, baking a cake, cultivating an ostentatious set of dreadlocks, and so on) that provide the most enduring joy.
Waterford five-piece O Emperor may or may not share this opinion but, whether by accident or design, with Vitreous – their second full-length effort following 2010’s Hither Thither – they’ve created an album for which the term ‘grower’ might have been coined. It’s not necessarily that it’s unimpressive on first listen, but rather that long-term immersion in the record reveals hidden depths and buried treasures.
If there is a problem with Vitreous initially, it’s that it’s perhaps a little too easy to play spot the influence. Opener ‘Grandmother Mountain’, for example, is an absolute dead-ringer for Seattle folkies Fleet Foxes (at least initially, before it goes all prog-pop bonkers – more of which anon). Elsewhere the impact of Grizzly Bear is writ large across much of the record, particularly ‘Minuet’ and ‘Soft In The Head’. Then again, there are much worse acts to crib off than Grizzly Bear. Moreover, as much of an inspiration as the Brooklyn band have obviously been on the sound of particular songs, what’s arguably more relevant is the influence of their left-field, adventurous approach. O Emperor have clearly been paying close attention, because – make no mistake – Vitreous is a laudably inventive, audacious album.
The aforementioned ‘Grandmother Mountain’ is a case in point: what starts off as a soft, piano-led lament soon becomes much less straightforward with the introduction of heady strings, thundering drums and searing lead guitar. No sooner does the song seem set to take off into orbit than it’s finished. The dreamy chug of ‘Whitener (Part 1)’ is characterised by reverb-laden vocals, a noisy, distorted breakdown and an odd, borderline-discordant melody, before being disrupted by a truly nasty-sounding guitar solo. ‘Brainchild’ is introduced by an ominous-sounding synth rumble, but soon shows itself to be a rather lovely folky pop piece, burnished with angelic backing vocals before it exits on a further blast of intrusive synth noise. In a great bit of tracklisting, no sooner have your synapses recovered from that brief, cacophonous onslaught than you’re being bashed over the head with the pounding drums and propulsive bass of the urgent, strident ‘Contact’. ‘Minuet’ and ‘Soft In The Head’ are successful stabs at stately chamber pop (the former successfully shoehorning in a reference to “the bar at the O2”), while ‘Land Of The Living’ echoes solo McCartney and even ELO in its enjoyably proggy stomp. Final track ‘This Is It’ is little short of superb, a low-key acoustic intro giving way to a fuzz-guitar-led, clamorous chorus call of “This is it: My final stand”. Like much of what precedes it, it’s a sharp, complex take on pop music that gets more satisfying with every listen.
Kudos, too, to the band for appreciating the benefits of brevity. At a mere 29 minutes long, the album is concise (to say the least) and easily digestible, and this seems to be a deliberate ploy: excellent first single ‘Holy Fool’, for example – the most immediate thing here – comes to an abrupt halt after only two-and-a-half minutes. Crammed into the record’s half hour running time are so many interesting sounds and diverting left-turns that you may well opt to just stick it on repeat. In other words, time spent getting to know Vitreous will be its own reward. Chances are that – once it gets under your skin – you’ll find yourself coming back to it again and again. It’s all about the slow burn.