Working For A Nuclear Free City, with Phil Kay and Gary McClure on co-songwriting duties, released three albums that, despite not being widely recognised at the time, were featured on a wide variety of television ads and dramas – from being used to sell expensive Jaguar cars to soundtracking a key scene in the pilot of Breaking Bad.
Their tracks contained spacey, spiralling and buzzing blasts of synths and keyboards – Kay was very instrumental in that side of their output and it acted as a neat contrast to their ‘live’ textures.
Now, under his new solo moniker of King Of The Mountains, Kay has presented himself with a completely blank canvas and, in so doing, given himself free rein to create whatever soundscapes of his choosing without any limitations. To solve the issue of what to do with all of that freedom, he decided to restrict himself by deliberately reverting to the same equipment – both computers and live instruments – that he’s been using for the last decade.
As a result, Zoetrope isn’t so much a statement of intent but a mechanical and competent showcase of Kay’s style. Anyone familiar with Working For A Nuclear Free City might well feel right at home; even for newcomers, this isn’t a challenging listen. These 10 songs are surprisingly accessible – Stranger Things Have Happened is about as epic and cinematic as it gets and, alongside Zebra Girls (even with its changing rhythms) contains warmth by the bucketload. It isn’t that friendly all the time though. The sheer giddiness of Undone recalls some of the exuberance of Dan Deacon‘s best work. Animal Attractions is bass-heavy, with a sinister melody that groans throughout as other sounds are distorted and bent out of shape.
Overall, it’s unlikely to cause a stir and it doesn’t ask much from the listener. This is Kay fully relishing the opportunity to show people what skills he has a producer but it’s also a little too frenetic for its own good. The way that Surrounded builds gradually is controlled but its crescendo isn’t as satisfying as it should be. Shinkansen starts off sounding mangled up before settling into a sharp mid-tempo groove but, as so often happens throughout the album, loses focus too much and ends up being rather distracting. It also sadly breaks up the momentum that Zoetrope’s more successful tracks worked so hard to build up.
What King Of The Mountains manages to achieve isn’t particularly new but there’s a fair amount of admirable craft going on that doesn’t come across as too robotic or synthetic. But it feels too safe, and lacks cohesion and structure. There’s potential for Kay to expand his palette even further – with a bit more focus and a lot more exploration he could easily conjure up a thrilling collection of songs – but in the meantime this is merely decent, and nothing more.