As any music fan knows, relying on critics for music purchase guidance can be a risky proposition. The Kingsbury Manx is one of those bands that critics yank from obscurity and thrust onto a pedestal somewhat overzealously. Reviewers were taken with the gentle psychedelia of its self-titled debut, and the band’s allure was increased by its mystique: practically nothing was known about the Chapel Hill-based group, and its album contained no photo, not even a listing, of the members. As the hype began to build, and misinformed rumours began to swirl that the band was in fact an indie supergroup operating incognito, its record was placed on best-of 2000 lists in both North America and the UK.
The praise wasn’t entirely unwarranted; the record was a self-assured creation, made with a confident and consistent vision often absent in debuts. Unlike other novice groups, The Kingsbury Manx didn’t sound like a cobbled-together collage of its influences, but a rather a winning synthesis of early Pink Floyd, British shoegazers such as Ride, Simon and Garfunkel’s hushed harmonies, and a touch of Americana. Ultimately, though, the end result was pleasant, not astonishing, as scribes at Uncut and the NME claimed. The album suffered from a lack of strong melodies and a sameness that left one song unnoticeably shifting into another. It was perfect for rainy day background atmospherics, but it didn’t draw you in the way great albums should.
After a follow-up, which was received to more moderate praise (critics had to move on to discover new darlings), the group took a two-year hiatus. Apparently, the absence energized the band. This September, it returned with Afternoon Owls, a five-song EP, and a month later, The Kingsbury Manx released Aztec Discipline, its third full-length record.
The songs on Aztec Discipline reflect an evolution in the band’s sound. The quintet’s trippiness remains, but the performances are more muscular and the tracks more varied. It’s not an entirely successful move, unfortunately; as the band ups the amplitude on its meandering songs, much of the gentle intimacy that made its earlier recordings so imminently listenable is lost. On the few songs when The Kingsbury Manx jettisons this newly emboldened psychedelia and tries on a couple of conventional tunes, however, the band produces some surprisingly affecting work.
The added muscle in The Manx’s performances is evident right from the first track, “Pelz Komet”. The band still rides a fairly hypnotic groove, but there’s a heightened energy now. The music more conducive to head-bobbing (albeit of the subdued variety) than the nodding off that earlier recordings occasionally induced. The song even builds to a moderately rocking guitar duel, but it’s a bit forced and awkward, like your uncool older uncle gyrating to Thin Lizzy at a family wedding reception.
Fortunately, such moments are infrequent on Aztec Discipline. When the band ups the volume elsewhere on the record, it’s to add some dark textures to their languid songs. It’s not always a convincing addition to their musical palette. “De Da Dementia”, all funereal tempo, lysergic vocal and reverb, recalls the worst of the late ‘60s heavy rock. This sort of uninspired minimalism, but with the addition of Ray Manzarek-esque keyboards, can also be found on “Pinstripes”. Both tracks are unappealingly unmelodic and claustrophobic. Perhaps the most successful song in this darker vein is “Dinner Bell”, a song that suggests the members have put aside their copies of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and picked up some later Floyd. The song achieves the morose mood of a Roger Waters song, right down to its downbeat lyrics: “And if you don’t feel your age, / just try and get back in the race / Might seem as though nothing has changed, / ‘til you find that you can’t keep the pace.”
The best moments on Aztec Discipline come when the band concentrates on more conventional song structures and melodies, bringing the pop and country undertones of previous material to the forefront. It’s tempting to suggest that the band benefits from adhering to the strictures of a pop song, not to mention from brightening its sound. Standouts include “Grape to Grain”, an uptemo track with the air of a George Harrison song circa All Things Must Pass, and the alternately bouncing and prettily waltzing “Growler in the Rumbleseat”.
The best is saved for last. “Fixed Bayonets” is a near-perfect song, a banjo-inflected gem with Byrds-like harmonies and haunting steel guitar notes soaring overhead. A quiet exercise in restraint, the song softly takes the listener in, and it’s truly saddening when, after two minutes and 30 seconds, it gently lets go. Eyes will close when this song is played—despite its melancholy lightness, it carries genuine weight. Should The Kingsbury Manx record an entire collection of songs this calibre, the band will have produced a classic record more than worthy of the praise that met its over-hyped debut. And if the band does, hopefully, the critics won’t be so busy fawning over the novelty of the next new thing.