If I had to pick one word to sum up Violent Light, the second album from Brooklyn quartet Milagres, it would be pretty.
Every song on the album is pretty. The floating synths, propulsive rhythm section and singer Kyle Wilson’s otherworldly falsetto attack the brain’s pleasure center without mercy. Listening to the record is the aural equivalent of dipping your nose into a bouquet of fresh roses.
But there’s a coldness to these songs, too, a distance. As enjoyable as it is to listen to, the album never pierces your heart the way the best pop music does. The music captivates while it plays, but it doesn’t linger after that.
Violent Light is the follow-up to Milagres’ 2011 debut, Golden Mouth, and it stands as an encouraging step forward for the band. The dreamy, gauzy aesthetic of the previous record remains, but the songs are tighter and catchier. At its best, Violent Light evokes the more adventurous pop of the 1980s, with its combination of hooks, atmosphere and electronic sheen. “Terrifying Sea”, one of the album’s highlights, establishes a mid-tempo groove accented by shining bell-like keyboards, and then the melody and chorus make the song come alive. “Urban Eunuchs” recalls the Talking Heads’ take on Al Green’s “Take Me To The River”, with its funky bass line and little squirts of organ. Us-era Peter Gabriel hovers over “The Black Table”, a standout track that benefits from Paul Payabyab’s rapid-fire drumming.
A few of the lesser tracks are elevated by Wilson’s singing, which often reaches beautiful heights. The ghostly, ethereal “IDNYL” wouldn’t hold together without his nigh-angelic cooing. Neither would “Sunburn”, which is saddled with a generic ‘80s synth-and-drums sound. Bassist Fraser McCulloch produced Violent Light, and he gives Wilson’s vocals plenty of sonic room while deftly weaving the keys, guitars and rhythm section into the mix. “Column of Streetlight” offers a good example of McCulloch’s approach. The song opens with gentle keyboards and the quiet but insistent strumming of an electric guitar, then builds into an explosive chorus that pairs Wilson’s falsetto with crashing drums without letting either overwhelm the other.
At the same time, though, there’s something fragile and precious about Violent Light, something that keeps the listener at arm’s length. The music’s undeniable beauty feels forbidding and museum-like. I’d love to hear Milagres deliver a rougher, warmer sound, a sound that would make the songs more visceral without sacrificing the atmosphere the band is so good at creating. I’d also like to see the band stretch a bit when it comes to the lyrics. Wilson delivers a few clunkers on Violent Light: “Like a chicken, I’m a flightless bird,” he sings on “Terrifying Sea”. (To be fair, that song also contains the album’s most direct and affecting lyric, a simple question posed to a loved one: “Can you tell me what you see in me?”) The lyrics also rely too heavily on abstract images, as in the opening track, “Perennial Bulb”, when Wilson sings, “My feet are bare/ They hit the ground / I’m running toward the miracle.” Not much for the listener to hold on to there.
Milagres is a talented band, and Violent Light is a solid record, filled with the kinds of songs that can momentarily transport you to another place. Listen to it with a good set of headphones and I guarantee you’ll lose yourself in the swirling music and soaring vocals. If that’s what you look for in a pop record, then Violent Light is for you. But the album would have a more enduring impact if Wilson revealed himself more plainly in the lyrics and the band attacked the listener in the heart, as well as the head.
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