Rising from the ashes of the Unicorns and their schizo brand of Beach Boys dream-pop, Islands first revealed themselves to the world in 2006 with the flawed but endearing Return to the Sea. Co-Founder and frontman, Nick Thorburn was able to infuse just as many (if not more) methodologies and influences that were seen in the Unicorns repertoire into the Islands playbook. The band’s wanderings into the worlds of calypso, Afrobeat and dancehall helped to bring an air of originality to Islands without completely abandoning the adventurous nature of the Unicorns. Unfortunately, the finished product lacked a certain central voice, and was ultimately a bit overlong and scattered. However, with Return to the Sea, Islands were able to re-enter the scene with a “take notice” kind of aura surrounding them that would undoubtedly carry over into their next attempt at immortality.
Arm’s Way, an album that deals in death and deception about as much a Marilyn Manson record, takes a step in a different direction. It is not only clinically dark, bordering on devious; but sounds as if Pavement (circa 1995) just created a weirdly symphonic opus about murder, fate, and the nature of man, and then decided to record it as a decked out classic rock band. Strangely, I’m not sure if that is the genius of Arm’s Way, or its ultimate undoing.
What you mostly take away from the album is its menacing aura. There is a foreboding quality that permeates the whole of Arm’s Way, both in the music and the lyrics; both on the surface and underneath. It all effectively makes Arm’s Way something of a mood piece. When thinking of it more as a specific exercise—almost like a character study—it can help alleviate some of the pressure that the album instills as it fumbles through its bombastic set pieces.
Using their “rockist” sensibilities by way of their more pop-like trappings, Arm’s Way is an infinitely interesting meeting of mindsets and genres. Witness the giant, classic rock guitars, as well as the ‘80s style synth break-beats and orchestral maneuvers. Arm’s Way is like T. Rex on uppers AND downers. However, in trying to compensate for Islands apparent lack of small-mindedness, the album dives into this world of lavish experimentation with no regard for what may lay in the water beneath. While that may be inherently brave, it all comes off so garish and extravagant that Islands lose so much of the charm from Return to the Sea. For all of its imperfections, Islands first album was (at least) honest. Arm’s Way, while certainly personal, gives a distinct sense of Thorburn trying a bit too hard to be taken seriously.
It isn’t all business all day, though. Some of their old buffoonery sticks to Islands’ respective sleeves. There is that awesome “La Bamba” breakdown at about the two-minute mark of “J’aime Vous Voire Quitter”. “Creeper” and “Kids Don’t Know Shit” are perfect examples of the baroque pop style that actually works in Islands’ favor and Thorburn’s lyrical work is mostly masterful with his odd brush strokes and troublesome characters. However, let’s face it, any album that ends with a three act musical centering around the hanging execution of the main character might have a little too much to answer for. Arm’s Way is just ridiculously over the top, which would be fine if that worked to it’s advantage every time. It, however, does not.
Musically though, you can’t deny the talent here. These lush arrangements would almost seem at home, but for their seething undercurrent. When the more ostentatious pieces are followed by the more stripped down, synth-based productions; it is hard not to be impressed by the fluid nature of it all. Thorburn has always had a knack for adding a debilitating quality to his jubilant rhythms. It is a dichotomy that he has embraced and taken to another level on Arm’s Way. It’s just that he may have taken it a bit too far, as Arm’s Way may be technically impressive but ultimately a bit of a boring downer.
Logically, Arm’s Way just doesn’t seem like the next step for Island’s. For that, I suppose you can commend Nick Thorburn. He has intentionally gone against expectations and created, at the very least, a unique and personal album that can be poked and prodded and discussed along with the great miscalculations of our time. I mean… if that’s what he wanted, then he got it. I guess.