Released in 2012, Cardiff-based duo Man Without Country’s promising if uneven debut album Foe received some strong reviews and established them as ones to watch in the future. An accomplished blend of winsome shoegaze and pulsating, club-friendly synthesisers, produced by former Sigur Rós collaborator Ken Thomas, it spawned two excellent singles in Puppets and especially King Complex, which opened with a wonderfully woozy early Velvet Underground vibe before surging skywards with great waves of blissful electronica. A sustained period of touring followed, including support dates with kindred spirits M83 and I Break Horses and remixing the likes of Two Door Cinema Club and Moby (remember him?), but now Ryan James and Tomas Greenhalf are back with their second record, the forebodingly titled Maximum Entropy.
The band’s name apparently refers to a sense of not belonging, which is rather interesting as similarly to their first album, arguably the biggest problem with Man Without Country’s return is that it struggles to carve out its own distinctive niche.
There’s much to admire here – the layers of shimmering electronica are painstakingly, precisely constructed, the atmospherics alternate adroitly between glacial reflection and strident anthemics. But overall there is a sense of a project struggling to nail down its musical direction, with elements of other acts failing to coalesce into a convincing whole.
The influences generally come to the fore on individual tracks, rather than repeatedly throughout the album. Loveless Marriage’s sparse, funereal beats and anguished, spectral vocals could have come straight from James Blake’s cutting room floor, while M83 singer Morgan Kibby’s soaring, faux-operatic guest slot on lead single Laws Of Motion is a dead ringer for the work of Toronto’s Austra. Catfish recalls the more down tempo UK club music of the early 1990s – a debt further acknowledged by a faithful if uninteresting cover of The Beloved’s classic Sweet Harmony, which closes Maximum Entropy as if determined to rubber stamp its creators’ lack of fresh ideas.
Perhaps Man Without Country’s closest musical cousins are Fuck Buttons, based just a short hop across the English border in Bristol – although there are some key differences, such as their preference to include James’s rather thin voice as a central ingredient to their sound. This is to their detriment. For example, opening track Claymation begins highly promisingly, with a piercingly shrill note cutting through the air like a signal from outer space to signal an onslaught of great, meaty synthesised slabs of noise. But as soon as James’s vocals come in, the attempts to transform the music into more conventional song craft fall flat, as he has neither the ear for a melody nor the singing chops to carry it off. Likewise, Virga and Oil Spil start out as the kind of epically uplifting electronic symphonies that Fuck Buttons have made their trademark, but once again the wrong direction is taken by introducing James’s reedy quiver.
Man Without Country really come into their own when the vast open spaces of their synthesised soundscapes are explored relatively uncluttered by other elements. Incubation and Deadsea both swirl beautifully, summoning up the same cosmic vastness as Fuck Buttons side project Blanck Mass, with James’s vocals more selectively deployed, existing on the outer margins of the composition rather than trying – and failing – to take it over.
If they recognise their strengths and adapt accordingly, we may still see a killer third album from Man Without Country. As it stands though, Maximum Entropy is the somewhat frustrating work of a band with potential in need of some fine tuning.