Picastro have always been a band with a penchant for both the dramatic and the grave. Led by vocalist Liz Hysen, the gender-bending outfit has established itself as a welcome addition to the incestual and theatrical Canadian music scene, whose bands are chock full of talented string musicians and singers with, above all, heart, and whose musicians themselves often hop from project to project. Picastro, a Toronto-based band, has remained small, but their collaborators, from Owen Pallett to Sandro Perri, have gone on to do bigger things.
That’s not stopping them from commanding the same haunting level of musical astonishment as bands as big as Arcade Fire command from their audience, a phenomenon that manifested itself most effectively in the great Become Secret from the tail end of the last decade. But Picastro doesn’t inspire like Arcade Fire. They require attention because their music is dark and utterly reminiscent of the unavoidable fate that conquers everyone. Yes, their music could be the soundtrack to a funeral.
Now, Picastro is finally following up Become Secret with You, on which the aforementioned darkness is on full display. It’s as lush, brooding and dramatic as what’s come before it while managing to be more concise. The main difference, however, between past Picastro records like Become Secret and You is the latter’s honesty. The new album exudes below-the-surface excitement more than any other Picastro release because it sees Hysen and company experimenting: from synthesizers in tracks like Vampires to layered vocals in tracks like That’s It, the band seems to be having fun.
The standouts here see Picastro combining their new with their old. On That’s It, flamenco guitar is juxtaposed with Hysen’s trademark horror-movie vocals to create something as emotional as it is haunting. Vampires’ two minutes of warped synthesizers see an often-acoustic band impressively exploring electric territory, while the noisy Temur’s freeform drums are reminiscent of avant garde jazz artists like Wadada Leo Smith. And on the beautiful State Man, Hysen’s Nico-like vocals soundtrack a collection of drums, pianos, and guitars that sound inspired by Hail To The Thief-era Radiohead.
Still, it’s not like having fun prevents Picastro from being the same deep, dark band they’ve always been. For example, if anything, first track Mountain Relief is the most ominous-sounding, lo-fi, scratchy track Picastro have ever produced. On second track Two Women, post-punk guitar stabs contrast baroque-sounding strings, piano, and vocals, making the song too tense for a listener to pleasantly wallow in its misery. And the electric, slow-burning Endlessly feels like its title in that it seems like it lasts forever, its basic, simple, everlasting drum beat chugging along, providing minimal support to the instability of its strings and nervous-sounding guitars.
The ultimate irony of You is that its most captivating song is an outlier simply because it’s seven and a half minutes long. Baron In The Trees sports Hysen’s vocals for what ultimately amounts to less than half of its duration. Musically, it sounds like something Jonny Greenwood would compose for Paul Thomas Anderson: squelching strings and ticking-clock percussion don’t necessarily cause an abstract sense of impending doom in the listener, but a visceral nausea, as if he or she is living in fear, waiting for something bad to happen even though it never comes. In that sense, the aural comedown of acoustic final track February is necessary for the listener’s experience.
Overall, You is an experiential listen; out of context, any of these songs might seem like experiments. But in the album’s sequence, its songs sound like more than the musical equivalent of ideas scribbled on a piece of paper. They’re experimental while making for a cohesive whole, exemplary of a band which has been slowly but clearly refining its sound for 15 years, all to the benefit of listeners who prefer to listen with the lights off.