Bigger and Better Things
If you’ve heard the neo-psychedelic pop of the High Dials before, feel free to forget all about it, as the High Dials have made a mostly successful leap from the derivative psych-pop of their debut into a fuller, more atmospheric sound. Although War of the Wakening Phantoms is a transitional album, suffering from a lack of the fun and frivolity of the High Dials’ earlier incarnation, it has enough pleasant moments to make up for its missteps.
Of course, there is a little bit of fun and frivolity on the album. The opening “The Holy Ground”, is a good, stomping rocker fueled by a thrilling shouted chorus of “come on”, which is backed by another rave-up, “Soul in Lust”, the song clearly designed to be the album’s single. Although the rest of the album is significantly more muted and more serious in tone, there are a few breezy pop songs, including “Higher and Brighter” and “A River Haunting”, that enliven the proceedings. The High Dials are typically more successful on these lighter songs, my personal favorite track being the catchy, synthesizer driven “Sick with the Old Fire”, the most clearly lighthearted song on the album. However, about half of the album is far too murky, occasionally lethargic, saddling great hooks and fantastic production values with needless instrumental breaks and dull verses. It seems as if the High Dials are trying to mature faster than they are actual capable of doing so, playing to their weaknesses rather than their many strengths.
“Our Time is Coming Soon” is the best example of the High Dials finding a great song and then, quickly losing it. The song itself, a sort of call to optimism, starts with a ferocious energy that is missing from other cuts. The song, initially, keeps up interest, but then it dissolves into a pretentious bridge where the words “our time” are whispered-sung in beat with the music. It is saved by a violent, maximum overdrive climax that brings the song to a close. Except that it doesn’t. The band continues for over a minute past the song’s natural end point, overstretching the climax to the point of tedium.
Part of the awkwardness of War of the Wakening Phantoms is the fact the High Dials are switching genres and are basically learning an entirely new set of skills. Where their early work was pure psych-pop fetishism, the High Dials are now taking the skeleton of that sound and trying to create something grand and atmospheric, in the style of Echo & the Bunnymen or the Church. War is supposed to be a big-sounding album, filled with countless instruments, expansive songs, and hints at a grander meaning. The problem is that the High Dials haven’t yet to figure out the difference between a truly epic song and a song that goes on far, far too long. The High Dials haven’t learned what not to include, how to trim songs to their proper length, or how to get rid of needless song sections and distracting instrumental contributions. Plus, they are clearly more comfortable playing up-tempo songs rather than ballads. (The crushingly dull “The Lost Explorer”, for instance, sounds like the Flaming Lips binging on Nyquil.)
It’s difficult to put much of this against the band, the High Dials are onto something interesting with their new sound, and this album shows plenty of evidence that they are on the right musical path. For every song that sounds like a horrid Moody Blues outtake, see “The Drum”, the High Dials do discover a pop gem. The short and sweet tracks “Strandhill Sands” and “A River Haunting” take a cue from bossa nova, a sound that fits well with the grand, atmospheric sound that the band is attempting to forge. For all of my complaints about their inability to keep songs at their appropriate length, the longest track on the album, the mesmerizing “Your Eyes Are a Door”, is one of the most effective songs. Riding a Krautrock-esque lazy mechanical groove for the track’s eight minutes, the song acts as a minimalist balance to the more grandiose songs on the album. Its recurring watery guitar riff acts as sort of a hypnotic guidepost, keeping listener attentions throughout the course of the (literally) spacey song. It’s quite remarkable, and it also suggests that the High Dials could effectively incorporate more electronic sounds into their songs.
So, War of the Wakening Phantoms is overlong, overstuffed, and has some of the dumbest song titles I’ve seen this side of emo, but it is a definitive turning point for the High Dials. No longer content to stick, mostly ignored, in the crowded psychedelic revival scene, the High Dials have made a bold leap to a new sound. I may not love it, at least right now, but, if I may borrow the immortal words of Wes Mantooth, god-damn it if I don’t respect it.