Don’t be surprised if you can’t recognize Cold Cave when the group’s new album Cherish the Light Years starts in media res, pounding you over the head from the get-go with a startling blast of churning riffs and heavy, relentless rhythms on “The Great Pan Is Dead”. While frontman Wesley Eisold made a name for his band a few years ago on a handful of bounding, almost giddy synth-pop singles, he’s put quite a bit more muscle on Cold Cave’s techno formula this time around. If you’re looking for the new New Order keyboards that got Cold Cave noticed to begin with, you’ll find them as background music for the opener’s mix of Ministry-like industrial noise and bruising hardcore punk. Maybe it’s nothing you would expect from Cold Cave, but getting reacquainted this way is almost as good as the first impression the band made.
There may be nothing else as intense and exhilarating on Cherish the Light Years as “The Great Pan Is Dead”, but the leadoff number represents how almost every track on the new album is carefully composed and well-conceived, proving how much Eisold has grown as a songwriter. Whereas the band’s debut Love Comes Close was an engrossing but scattered effort built around a few brilliant singles—particularly, the title track and “Life Magazine”—pretty much any of the songs on the latest outing has a sense of coherence and structure to stand strong on its own. So the resonant synth refrains and drum machine beats of “Confetti” might recall “Love Comes Close”, but the new number feels like it has more substance to it, with Eisold’s lyrics coming through cleaner and the instrumental parts sharper and bulked up. Better yet is “Icons of Summer”, which bolts out of the gate with twitchy keyboard lines like another New Order remake before it gets dancepunky à la LCD Soundsystem, which is most pronounced as Eisold does his best James Murphy rave-up with his deep-throated voice. And when you hear the electro-rock breakdowns on “Icons of Summer”, you realize you might not miss LCD so much with Cold Cave around.
But like any album that dares to be as big and brash as Cherish the Light Years is, the risks can be as outsized as the rewards. Trying out a few too many styles, Cherish the Light Years can seem at times more like a singles compilation than a cohesive effort when Eisold’s imagination gets carried away with itself a bit too much. Sure, ambition can be a good thing, but Eisold and company stray from their dark-pop strong suit at points, finding themselves on forays into proto Britpop and glossy new wave. Almost jaunty and up-tempo, “Catacombs” is a pleasant enough Smiths tribute, but it’s just that Eisold doesn’t yet have the subtlety and wit to make lyrics like “I’m still on the prowl behind you” seem wry instead of creepy and stalkerish. As befuddling as it is intriguing, “Alchemy Around You” is a head scratcher more than anything else, as Eisold imagines what it would be like if Peter Murphy fronted Duran Duran, complete with a skronky ska-inspired horn section. You have to give Eisold credit for his verve and conviction on “Alchemy Around You”, but it’s hard to tell whether it stands out as the work of a mad genius or sticks out as an example of experimentation gone awry.
Indeed, it’s anything but a given on Cherish the Light Years that bigger and bolder necessarily means better. More so than the other parts of the mix, the clearer, beefier production doesn’t always bode well for Eisold’s vocals, which can come off heavy handed when they get stuck telling about rather than showing Cold Cave’s dark side. One egregious offender is the ominous “Burning Sage”, on which Eisold apparently assumes that describing everything as black is enough to make it menacing and foreboding—lines like “I’ve been breathing with my lung / Black lung / Oh, reckless abandon / Loaded gun / Black gun” are as dicey spoke-sung by Eisold as they look on paper. Even more overwrought, if that’s possible, is “Underworld U.S.A.”, which makes a bid to be an anthem for the pale-and-emaciated set, but falls short by going over the top. Standard-issue electro-goth that becomes histrionic as it tries to create drama, every “Underworld U.S.A.” is overembellished in every aspect, with guitars and synths sounding slick and cheesy as they back up vocals that Eisold pushes past the point of parody, whether intentionally or not.
In the larger scheme of things, though, it’s hard not to appreciate how Cold Cave isn’t afraid to be ambitious and strive for something more. Even if that means missteps like the ones on Cherish the Light can be magnified, the payoff is ultimately greater in the case of Cold Cave, as the thrilling coda “Villains of the Moon” suggests: With guitar and keyboards playing off each other to heighten the drama, Cold Cave opens up new possibilities for itself by trying true to its own identity, giving you an idea what Interpol might be like if it took its cues from New Order instead of Joy Division. The album’s closer gives the final word on what happens when execution and vision come together for Cold Cave, a good case of the band’s ever-developing grasp catching up with its outstretched reach.