The second full-length album from Birds of Avalon, Uncanny Valley, combines punk attitude with lo-fi recording techniques and a dash of psychedelia. The result is unfortunately nowhere near as interesting as it sounds. Ostensibly the album is based on the concept of the uncanny valley, in which objects become more disturbing to human perception as they become more lifelike. Things like living dolls, zombies, and Robert Zemeckis’s close-but-not-close-enough computer animated film The Polar Express all fall within the uncanny valley for most people.
This concept may very well be explored in lead singer Craig Tilley’s lyrics, but the lo-fi production overemphasizes the dueling guitars of married bandleaders Paul Siler and Cheetie Kumar and Scott Nurkin’s drums. Tilley’s vocals are buried in the mix, as if the rest of the band has no real interest in what he has to say. The press materials for the album make a big deal about how Uncanny Valley was recorded quickly and entirely with analog equipment. And not just any old analog equipment, but previously used 2” tape in a 16-track tape machine. This album may actually be a poster child for why most bands use digital recording techniques these days. Instead of giving the album a rich, warm sound, the quick and (literally) dirty method seems to have resulted in a tinny, treble-heavy mix that removes most of the body from the recording. I don’t know, maybe it sounds much better if listened to on older, analog speakers, which I’ll admit I don’t own.
The album opens with “Unkaany Valley”, a 25-second burst of saxophone squalling and sounds played backwards before launching into the syncopated “Side Two”, which features a nice, complex rhythmic interplay between the drums and one of the guitars. But right away Killey’s vocals are buried in the mix, keeping much of the song’s melody in the background in favor of the rhythm and a guitar solo. “I Never Knew” features some swirling, psychedelic guitar sounds mixed with a harder-edged riff. It’s an interesting mix, but once again, the melody of the song is nearly non-existent underneath the swirl of guitars. By the time fourth track “Your Downtime Is Up” finishes, it’s pretty clear that this is the status quo for Birds of Avalon. They are all about the guitar riffs and the beats, and the rest is secondary.
The second half of the album actually has several instrumentals, which would seem to be right up the band’s alley. However, the heavily processed guitar duet “Dadcage” is effectively spacey, but it isn’t particularly engaging. “Last Rites (Funky Slide)” is once again spacey-sounding, but it definitely isn’t funky and the simple guitar theme that dominates the second half of the song isn’t very interesting. The album closes with “Micro-Infinity”, another guitar duet that has some cool harmonies going for it and reminds me of something that former touring partners the Fucking Champs would write. Except that the Fucking Champs, with their short attention span, would know enough to finish the track up after about three minutes. Birds of Avalon keep it going for just over five minutes and predictably the song wears out its welcome.
The only time Uncanny Valley really shows some promise is in the punkier, more traditional songs on the back end of the album. “Eyesore” has a cool two-note guitar figure (later reprised slower and less successfully on “Micro-Infinity”) and enough melody in the guitar lines to give the song impetus despite Tilley’s typically buried vocals. “Student Teaching” is a two-minute blast of crashing drums, crashing chords, and pitch-shifted vocals that fit in quite well with the rest of the music. “Spirit Lawyer” drops into a deep groove augmented by the album’s heaviest guitars and tom-heavy drum work. But these tracks aren’t enough to overcome Birds of Avalon’s biggest issues. Their inability to (or possibly disinterest in) craft memorable melodies, be it in the singing or with guitars, makes most of their songs just kind of lie there. It’s understandable for a rock band to not want to go for the big hooks all the time, but without decent melodies the music quickly becomes forgettable.
// Notes from the Road
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