With 11 albums in 15 years, it’s fair to say that American psychedelic rock group Of Montreal aren’t ones for sitting around and twiddling their thumbs in between albums. The latest offering, entitled Paralytic Stalks, is a quite startling and complex departure from any of the band’s recent albums. In following up 2010’s R&B and funk influenced False Priest – which featured guest appearances from Janelle Monáe and Solange Knowles – Of Montreal’s creator and principal songwriter, Kevin Barnes, has turned Paralytic Stalks into very much his own project.
The album was written, performed, engineered and produced by Barnes at his own Sunlandic Studios in Athens, before the final mix was formed with the assistance of engineer Drew Vandenberg (Deerhunter, Toro y Moi). The result is an introverted and personal record, with lyrics that, at times, hark back to Of Montreal’s 2007 album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? – something that has both its upsides and downsides.
“It’s fucking sad that we need a tragedy / to occur to gain a fresh perspective in our lives / nothing happens for a reason / there’s no point even pretending / you know the sad truth as well as I,” sings Barnes, with painstaking bitterness on Spiteful Intervention. It’s just one of many instances on Paralytic Stalks where Barnes lyrically bares himself over a chaotic backing track. The opener, Gelid Ascent, begins with lo-fi industrial sounds, as Barnes’ distorted whisper provides an insight into what is to come. While the twee-twanging and jaunty piano of seven minute-plus Wintered Debts, forms a stark contrast to Barnes’ snarling vocals and brutally honest lyrics: “Somehow I lost the thread of being human, wrapped in all this bitterness.”
Paralytic Stalks is not a one-way street, though. The dark lyricism and restless sounds are also balanced occasionally by light-hearted, pop melodies. Take Dour Percentage, for example, where Barnes’ lyrics (“it cheapens us the way you and I torment each other”) are offset by the song’s flute-driven, soulful pop melody. Malefic Dowery is much of the same. It’s a quaint pop gem with a wistful acoustic guitar, weaving flute and a surprisingly beautiful falsetto vocal performance from Barnes. The first half of Ye, Renew the Plaintiff is the rockiest Paralytic Stalks gets, with squirming guitar riffs and a return to wailing vocals that graced the opening of the album. The second half of the song, though, sees Of Montreal capture psychedelic madness with an orchestral twist, something that becomes more prevalent as the album reaches its denouement.
If the first half saw Barnes experiment with Of Montreal’s sound, then the final two songs – which are 20 minutes long altogether – are an extensive and complete separation from anything the band has ever attempted before. Exorcisimic Breeding Knife is a haunting haze of distorted noise, while Authentic Pyrrhic Remission is an upbeat, whirling and whooping piece of orchestral disarray that will leave you feeling confused and slightly disappointed.
After what seemed like a considered, cohesive opening to Paralytic Stalks, the second half of the album – and the final two songs, in particular – provide an unsettling and unfocused conclusion. The introduction of session musicians, including classically trained violinist Kishi Bashi and the band’s newest member Zachary Cowell, have undoubtedly added an adventurous, orchestral edge to Of Montreal’s sound. However, Barnes’ insistence on packing so many ideas into one song, let alone one album, results in an unlovable and disconnected record. Of Montreal’s 11th album started as though it had somewhere to go. Unfortunately, by the end, it’s hard to work out exactly where that was.