Album review: Midlake – Antiphon
by Thomas Blake
The Courage of Others, Midlake’s 2010 third album, was a noble but flawed conception, an attempt to filter the electric country of their excellent breakthrough The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006) through a gauze of 1970s Brit folk rock. They nailed the sound completely, but in doing so forgot to write any decent tunes. The result was a record that ambled along earnestly but failed to get off the ground, devoid as it was of transcendent moments like its predecessor’s Roscoe or Head Home.
The whole affair, it seems, was too much for frontman Tim Smith to handle, and halfway through recording the band’s fourth album he quit to concentrate on his new project, Harp. Faced with a dilemma, the remaining members made the bold choice to ditch the Smith material and start afresh.
So, a band apparently on the wane, whose leader and creative driving force has called it a day and who have had to bash out an album quick-smart. Doesn’t sound promising, does it? You can practically hear the critics sharpening their knives, chopping their parsley and preheating their ovens to gas mark 6. But of course there is another way of looking at things. This could be Midlake’s big chance. There could be a grand reinvention or rejuvenation on the cards, something akin to the great New Order tracks that sprang from the demise of Ian Curtis and Joy Division, or closer to home Fleetwood Mac’s upturn in fortunes after the arrival of Buckingham and Nicks.
If it’s not really fair to compare Midlake Version 2.0 with the band that recorded Van Occupanther, then neither should we seek to make easy and favourable comparisons with The Courage of Others. The polar shift of creative power within the band makes this a largely pointless exercise anyway. Antiphon has to be judged on its merits, and from the off it doesn’t look good. The title-track plonks us down in the midst of a wobbly, half-baked prog chant. Within a couple of minutes a problem becomes discernible: Midlake are trying to do progressive rock, and that’s fine, but the arrangement is so confused, the sound so muddy, that the more ideas the band have, the more those ideas become entangled, mired in a soupy , melody-deficient whole. And therein lies another, greater problem. The shortness of the songs, their attempts at big soaring builds, points to a desire to write pop tunes. But the album is so lacking in hooks that the whole thing collapses.
There are moments when the sounds are engaging enough in themselves – witness the almost War of the Worlds-style effects in the second half of Ages – but there is nothing holding them together. For an album so stuffed with musical bits and pieces, it is strangely short on substance. There are songs that flatter to deceive. The Old and the Young begins at a pleasant enough bound, and even has a crack at returning to the old Van Occupanther pioneer spirit. It is the one song that doesn’t seem rushed. But the songwriting, particularly on the chorus, is naïve, and not in a good way. Whereas the songs on The Courage of Others struggled because they didn’t really go anywhere, this one actually ends up going backwards, so that by the time the final chorus hits you feel like it’s disappearing in on itself.
To be brutally honest, there is no sustained period of Antiphon that comes close to a Head Home or Roscoe. The basis for a very good song is there in the aforementioned The Old and the Young, and also in Provider, but the delivery here is lacklustre and the development non-existent. Aurora Gone threatens to hold interest but ends up sounding like the more earnestly out-there moments of the Moody Blues, but with none of that band’s knack for melodic inventiveness. Vale, the only song written before the departure of Smith, becomes a messy sprawl with a disconcerting hard rock finale.
It’s a frustrating affair. If you were to take any thirty-second snippet of this record and play it on its own you would find much to admire – a pensive flute here, some nagging percussion there, the odd squally lead guitar line. But an album that aspires to large-scale progressiveness is rightly never going to be listened to in thirty-second snippets, and neither should it be judged in that way. Ultimately, then, Antiphon is a failure. Whether this is down to an irreversible decline in songwriting quality, a lack of direction after the exit of their frontman, or simply a blip caused by the hurried nature of the conception and recording of the album, it is too early to tell. It would be a shame if this new incarnation of a once-excellent band failed to fulfil the potential that is evidently there.
Antiphon is released 4th November on Bella Union