With Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective set the bar for the new wave of synth-pop. In the intervening couple of years no one else has come near it. But that’s not stopped a thousand bedroom musicians trying their damndest.
The latest to give it a whirl are Philadephians Sun Airway. Their debut album, the catchily titled Nocturne Of Exploded Crystal Chandelier, won’t inspire the awe Animal Collective did on their eighth attempt, but it’s a good start.
Unlike Animal Collective, Jon Barthmus and Patrick Marsceill don’t shy away from making bold dream-pop statements; they unashamedly tick every box. With a layered, melancholic sound loosely rooted in shoegaze, they dip into the dreamy filmscapes of David Holmes, channel The Flaming Lips‘ spaciest moments and suggest the grandiose drama of Arcade Fire. What is different, though, is Barthmus’ voice. A college rock whine or a nervous, high pitched warble would be more in keeping, but Barthmus’ vocal chords are fully loaded with testosterone and emit a gnarly, sexy drawl that sounds more Julian Casablancas than Wayne Coyne. It’s a refreshing combination and the contradiction is what makes the bulk of the album interesting. So it’s a slap of irony that the vocal-heavy tracks like Swallowed By The Night and Actors, are the album’s weaker moments.
Highlights come courtesy of Waiting On You, a clash of clattering synths, which force themselves around Barthmus’ vocal, almost but not quite drowning him. He pushes through, swooning “I’d die now if only it were up to me, I’m guessing we wandered too close to the water, the current’s been sweeping me in,” before a relentless pummelling eventually gives way to a gentle explosion of harmonies.
American West is the album’s most immediate song, with chattering beats and a looping chorus, while Oh, Naoko is a similarly upbeat mash of hazy electronic sounds.
Shared Piano is an unexpected delight; a fluttering love song where the lyrics take priority: “You stole the ivories and you left me with the black keys of our shared piano in our silver room, But still your melodies, well they haunt the reveries of our shared piano.” The tender lyrics float to the surface as Barthmus muses over the “Quarter notes hanging around like little ghosts”.
There are times when it feels a bit prescribed; dream-pop by numbers. But when they’re at their best Sun Airway have a knack of perfectly balancing melancholy with intelligence and brutal honesty. There are several goosebump moments across what is ultimately a feel-good record that washes through you like a musical detox. So while they might not be snatching Animal Collective’s crown just yet, listening to their debut would be a New Year’s resolution worth keeping.