“The overall sound is a little too pat, too wipe-clean,” wrote The Observer’s Kitty Empire in 2015 of Tame Impala’s heartbroken synthesiser symphony Currents, a record that demonstrated that phased guitars weren’t necessarily the key to creating colourful, state-altering music. If Currents was wipe-clean, then Temples’ new album Volcano – which also features an increased reliance on shiny synths – has been sprayed with a hundred cans of Mr Sheen, wiped repeatedly and then buffed until in possession of a blinding glisten visible from the International Space Station. You’ve heard of space rock; this is seen-from-space pop.
It is perhaps cruel to start a piece of Temples’ second LP with a quote from a critic: despite cracking the Top 10 and being named Rough Trade’s Album of the Year, some of the reviews for the band’s debut Sun Structures were less than glowing. There were suggestions that despite being in possession of all the expected psychedelic signifiers and solid, occasionally great (Shelter Song, Move With The Season) songs, there was little in the way of sonic exploration, little to distinguish them from acts already set up in the same, increasingly crowded field (Tame Impala, Toy, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Pond, Allah-Las). Worse were the suggestions that there was something more cynical going on: that they were attempting to leap, via the back of Tame Impala’s elephantine Elephant, onto Radio 1 playlists and TV advertisements; that an apparent shift in emphasis from higher consciousness to high chart positions represented something of an endgame for neo-psych.
This view wasn’t an entirely fair one: read or listen to any interview with Temples and it’s obvious that they are big music fans with fine taste, and they have label mates and friends who are knee-deep in all things cosmic – Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve did a near-complete reanimation of Sun Structures called Sun Restructured. (The only problem with that reanimation – BTWS elaborating on musical details and isolating snippets of vocals, dub-style – being that it was infinitely more exciting and trippy than the original album.) Temples have always stressed that they are lovers of melody – that they write melodic, anthemic tunes that appeal to a great number of people should be viewed as a strength rather than a weakness.
Maybe there was something in those criticisms that touched a nerve, though: in a recent chat with Rough Trade Radio, vocalist and guitarist James Bagshaw described how witnessing an all-kicking, all-dancing show by Foxygen made him want to cry at how “boring” the Temples live experience was by comparison. Volcano, self-produced and recorded at the band’s home studio in Kettering, does feel like a concerted effort to create something bolder, more individual and ultra-modern, something that’ll hold its own against the big shiny pop productions dominating today’s Radio 1 A-List.
Unfortunately, while undoubtedly bigger, it is – despite Bagshaw’s claims – not necessarily better. And the main issue is that blindingly glistening production and the garish, dog-bothering synths that dominate near every track. Certainty, the first taster of this new sound, opens the album: it comes in with a bassy stomp similar to that of Keep In The Dark and A Question Isn’t Answered before being joined (not for the last time) by a shrill, insistent Day-Glo synth riff. On the chorus, Bagshaw sings in a higher register than he’s comfortable with, straining to be heard over the track’s synthetic dim.
He’s similarly swallowed up by the crunching mix on Celebration; rather than being a deft, weightless moment at the heart of the record, How Would You Like To Go? is a heavy-handed, earthbound dud. On Currents, Kevin Parker used synths to disorient and to prettify and put a brave face on his tales of despair. Temples’ piercing synths certainly perplex and distract but probably not in the way they intended. Any emotional or meaningful messages that may be in these songs are completely lost.
Some lovely moments do manage to fight their way through: the lovely acoustic verses on Oh The Saviour; Open Air’s jiving Motown bassline; the way the splendid medieval flourishes on (I Want to Be Your) Mirror mirror the lyrics’ call to be “like it was before.” Whether Roman Gold-Like Man’s rewrite of The Kinks’ David Watts, complete with “fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa”s, is shameless fun or shameful is up for debate.
Written by keyboardist Adam Smith, the inventive All Join In opens with a jittering on-the-run beat – more specifically the jittering beat of Pink Floyd’s On The Run – before shifting into the kind of inclusive, sing-song chorus that’s made a pop master of Jeff Lynne. The synths here are shrill and melodramatic but they serve a purpose, creating an air of interstellar awe. Born Into The Sunset, boasting a colossal instrumental hook (is that a guitar or a keyboard?), promises to be a firm fan favourite.
Temples save the best for last with Strange Or Be Forgotten. It has a terrific tune, the instrumentation isn’t overbearing and there’s an emotive catch to Bagshaw’s falsetto on the chorus: “a state from a past infection, be strange or be forgotten.” The track, however, does raise again the notion of strangeness and otherness, and – inexplicable production and mixing decisions aside – that’s in short supply across Volcano’s 50 minutes. Maybe Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve will be able to provide it.