Kevin Barns is a madman; this is well documented. From Of Montreal’s obsessions over Dustin Hoffman in their early days (example track title: “Dustin Hoffman Does Not Resist Temptation to Eat the Bathtub”) to the manic progressive pop of their breakout Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Barns has infused a profound insanity into everything in Of Montreal’s massive catalogue. Aureate Gloom isn’t Of Montreal’s weirdest album, but it might be the most baffling. Most songs here seem to contain the DNA of a dozen other tracks, with Barns stitching them together Frankenstein-style. The results are occasionally brilliant, often frustrating, but always confounding.
Barns himself described the album as “all over the place musically”. Somehow, that manages to be an understatement. “Bassem Sabry” kicks everything off with a groaning guitar lead that could have opened a Nirvana B-side, only for Chic biting guitars to drift in and take over the song with a disco-groove. Graceful violins, a nod to Billy Idol’s “Mony Mony”, and a ghostly choir all mix together on this hallucinatory track. “Bassem Sabry” sets a standard for the album, and, if you’re tired and confused by the time it ends, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
“Aluminum Crown” starts off sounding like Pink Floyd covered in cough syrup, only for garage rock sensibilities to come barreling through and destroying the opening meditative mood. “Virgilian Lots” follows with a dirge-like organ interrupted by a surf rock groove. That groove is then stopped by a beautiful tropical bossa nova feel, and that feeling is further stopped by a terrifying keyboard line that seems close to catching on fire. If all of this sounds a bit exhausting, that’s because it is. “Virgilian Lots” and “Bassem Sabry” are fine songs, but a few of the segments within them deserve their own song; “Virgilian Lots”, in particular, could have been three standalone tracks. Barns, however, felt the need to preform unneeded alchemy on them.
Even more frustrating are songs that have excellent moments suffocated by the song around them. “Last Rites at the Jane Hotel” is the most annoying example. Most of the song is predictable rock, but a sudden ray of light graces the song in the form of a gorgeous choirlike section that blends chamber pop and psychedelic tones perfectly. This lasts only last a few moments. “Monolithic Egress” has a few good ideas bouncing around its rambling structure, but none of them are given enough time to grow; the strange god that lives in Barns’ head demands that it moves from segment to segment at a blinding pace. “Chthonian Dirge for Uruk the Other” doesn’t have the sudden logic jumps as its counterparts, but it breaks down into formless feedback, a pointless addition to the album. (Speaking of “Chthonian Dirge for Uruk the Other”, have I mentioned the song titles? They make Shabazz Palaces sound coherent.)
Aureate Gloom might be a maddening album, but at least it has a worthy payoff with its finale, “Like Ashoka’s Inferno of Memory”, which will surely go down as one Of Montreal’s finest. It’s easily the most aggressive song on the album; it highlights Barns’ lyrics, which are more reliably great on the album than the music is. Over a ferocious guitar Barns recalls, “You said you wanted to murder your rabbit heart / Well you mustn’t it’s the part of you that I love the best… / let it stay wild, let it stay free / It’s what makes you special, so much better than me.” The whole thing does sound like an inferno, and is a depressing reminder that Barns wrote this in the aftermath of his divorce. The song then bursts into a progressive psychedelic jam before giving way to a hand clap-heavy outro that plasters a smile on its face, even while the tears are streaming down.
“Like Ashoka’s Inferno of Memory” is what Aureate Gloom could have been, a madhouse that works on its own non-logic, taking the listener to exotic locales and making them insanity understandable. Unfortunately, it just adds salt to the wound, a reminder of how how infuriatingly close Aureate Gloom came to being great.