It’s pretty clear by now that Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes follows his own muse. This is the man who gradually transformed Of Montreal from a charmingly twee, childlike indie-pop band to a one-man dance-rock project where he reflects on his sexual foibles and fantasies. Barnes has also spent much of the past decade pretending the group’s first six albums don’t exist. You’ll never hear anything from before 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic at an Of Montreal concert. Even if we take a page from Barnes and ignore the early period of his career, the musical and lyrical progression from the cheery pop of Satanic Panic to the bitter, sometimes self-flagellating funk of 2010’s False Priest is surprising. The new Paralytic Stalks may be Barnes’ most extreme musical change yet.
Things kick off in much the same vein as False Priest, but Barnes has a bomb to drop on his audience in the album’s second half. “Gelid Ascent” is a slow, dark rocker that finds Barnes complaining loudly about another person, presumably an ex. The song opens with 50 seconds of noise before a spoken section that begins, “You’re what parasites evolved from” and gets more bitter from there. Eventually the music becomes grounded by a strong, steady rhythm section while waves of distorted guitar and synth noises swirl around in the background. Second track “Spiteful Intervention” picks right up where False Priest‘s closing diatribe left off. “It’s fucking sad that we need a tragedy / To occur to gain a fresh perspective in our lives / Nothing happens for a reason / There’s no point even pretending / You know the sad truth as well as I!” Clearly Barnes has decided to expand his lyrical focus to external, social targets as well. Despite the strident quality of the lyrics, “Spiteful Intervention” has a loose groove to it and a couple of actual hooks. Instrumentally, the music is largely piano and strings, with occasional crazy drum fills and synth sounds. It’s weird, but it works.
It continues like this for the first five songs. “Dour Percentage” is a ‘70s-style soft-rock dance song, complete with falsetto, warm piano chords, saxophone-driven interludes and flutes. Lots and lots of flutes. “We Will Commit Wolf Murder” sounds a lot like a more traditional Of Montreal song, complete with a great, active bassline and a hyperactive drumbeat…at least until the last two minutes, which goes through a Skeletal Lamping-style musical shift into a dark vamp that’s essentially a completely different song. “Malefic Dowery” is a straight-up ballad, with acoustic guitars, piano, and more fluttering flutes. Barnes uses this opportunity to trot out his love of big words, regardless of how they fit rhythmically into the song. The most egregious example: “Now I live in fear of your schizophrenic genius / It’s a tempestuous despot that I can’t seem to propitiate.”
If this kind of thing was all Barnes did on Paralytic Stalks, it would be the logical next step from False Priest. This album begins to move away from the funk influences and overtly sexual lyrics that have dominated the last few Of Montreal albums and incorporating more orchestral instruments. As he expands his sonic textures, Barnes seems less interested in the hook-based melodic songwriting that has been his bread and butter throughout his career. But the second half of Paralytic Stalks goes way, way further than that. The album’s last four songs are each over seven minutes long, with the final track clocking in at 13 minutes plus. The music gets pretty out there.
“Ye, Renew the Plaintiff” rocks hard for the first four of its nearly nine minutes. It might be the hardest-hitting track Barnes has written since “She’s a Rejector,” with squalling guitar solos and Barnes yelling his head off. A flute-dominated transition then gives way to the song’s smoother second half, which has the same driving beat, but is dominated by piano and saxophones. The song ends by gradually disintegrating into noise, but at least it never really loses its driving beat. The album really starts to go off the rails on track seven, “Wintered Debts”, which shuffles through a good three or four styles in its first minute. Folk ballad, country shuffle and disco-pop all make appearances, shoved up against each other with no transition and making little musical sense. The song continues to bounce around between these styles before tuneless piano tinkling takes over while Barnes continues to quietly sing lyrics. The song’s next three minutes feature an array of instruments creating a formless soundscape with no melody or beat. Eventually Barnes shows up again to sing a quiet piano ballad in the last minute, as if this makes up for the aimlessness of the rest of the song.
All of this is just table setting for “Exorcismic Breeding Knife”, which is literally the musical antithesis of what Of Montreal is known for. This track is seven minutes and forty seconds of atonal minimalism. There is no tune, no beat, certainly none of the catchy hooks that brought the band to prominence. The track has more in common with 20th century composers like Schoenberg or Penderecki, men who experimented with things like tone clusters and rejected traditional tonality and musical structure. The radical departures continue on “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission”, the album’s final song. It starts off with some genuinely catchy melodies, but those melodies are undercut throughout by oddball noises lurking below the surface of the music. And the noise overwhelms the melody completely about five minutes into the track. The noise continues for the next seven minutes until the track ends with another quiet piano ballad.
On the one hand, it’s nice that Kevin Barnes is in a position where he feels he can make exactly the sort of music he wants to make, without regard to genre or expectation. Since Of Montreal has been his personal one-man project for years now, it makes sense that he’d put tracks like “Wintered Debts” and “Exorcismic Breeding Knife” on an Of Montreal record. But it also seems clear that there’s nobody in Barnes’ life who will stand up to him or give him some much-needed advice. He’s by far the biggest act on Polyvinyl Records, so they won’t say boo to him. The rest of the Of Montreal live band are hired guns who can be replaced. Even a longtime associate like guitarist Brian Poole, who’s been in the band since before Satanic Panic, apparently doesn’t have any say in the music Barnes creates. These experiments in atonality and soundscapes are perfect for a Barnes side project, but as music from Of Montreal they’re completely out of sync with anything he’s put on an album to this point (although not, it should be noted, as out of sync with some of the music he’s put on his much lower-profile EP’s). Barnes has asked a lot of his audience before, and we all liked Hissing Fauna so much that we put up with the half-baked ADD song experiments of Skeletal Lamping and hoped that the solid but not great False Priest was a return to form. But Paralytic Stalks may be an interesting referendum on art vs. commerce. I’m not sure that the fans who turn out to see Of Montreal’s indie-rock circus of a live show are going to want to sit through 20-30 minutes of stuff like “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission”. Maybe this will turn out to be the kind of crazy departure that somehow takes Of Montreal to the next level. I think it’s more likely that Paralytic Stalks won’t win Kevin Barnes any new fans, and may actually drive away some of his longtime followers.