Tim DeLaughter has a record label. It’s called “Good Records”. Yes, he who is responsible for inflicting two of the stranger modern rock radio phenomena of the last 10 or 11 years is now in charge of signing and cultivating new bands for a broad audience. It’d be a bit frightening if it weren’t so exciting.
Pilotdrift is DeLaughter’s first signing to Good, and as one might expect with anything involving DeLaughter, it follows the same do-whatever-you-want aesthetic that’s near and dear to his heart. Pilotdrift is a five-piece that sounds like a 25-piece, a little band with big aspirations. This is the sort of band who would probably love to make it big, just for a little while, so they could see their tremendous visions come to life in a live setting with, say, the London Symphony Orchestra, allowing them the opportunity to animate their ambitious musical scores with more than a synthesizer-enhanced version of the typical rock band setup. Water Sphere goes beyond ambitious, beyond crazy, into totally fucking nuts territory with an album that incorporates drum & bass as easily as it does circus music, and features a quiet, subtle instrumental track on the same album as a nearly-10n-minute piece with symphonic movements that may or may not have been heavily influenced by Andrew Lloyd Weber (particularly, The Phantom of the Opera).
Needless to say, it’s a trip.
The quintessential Pilotdrift song thus far comes early in the album—“Bubblecraft” is an absorbing slice of prog-psychedelia that could well have the masses ballroom dancing in torn jeans and t-shirts. The defining feature of “Bubblecraft” is its bossa nova beat, emphasized by synthesizer lines that sound a lot like muted horns and violins, all playing Radiohead chord progressions. Lead vocalist and primary songwriter Kelly Carr sounds a lot like Spacehog’s Royston Langdon minus the overemphasized diphthongs, leading us into a vaguely futuristic world that seems far from our own until the refrain of “work for money, long for luxury” hits. It’s at this point that Pilotdrift’s seemingly far-fetched narrative enters the realm of parable, a reflection of the unchanging state of the modern world, where the surroundings may change but the attitude stays the same. Followup track “Passenger Seat” floats along on a wispy loop of a guitar line and a drum & bass-influenced beat, hitting the aforementioned point home: “Though things have changed, / We say we’re still the same”, says Carr, and the point is driven home.
That’s not to say that Pilotdrift should necessarily be noted for their lyrical prowess. After getting that little two-song suite out of the way, Carr drifts into the absurd. There’s a song called “Late Night in a Wax Museum”, in which the wax sculptures come alive at night. Actually, I think I’ve heard that one before. “Elephant Island” is a sea shanty and a waltz (with a liberal helping of the circus) detailing Erwin Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition and resultant descent into madness. And then there’s the ten-minute “Jeckyll and Hyde Suite”, a first-person character sketch from both sides of the legendary character(s). All of these are worthy subjects, to be sure, but Carr’s lyrics don’t usually progress far past rote description, which is a shame.
Thankfully, there is the music to fall back on, which I suspect is the point. All of these songs are so musically outlandish that one hardly notices the words anyway. The transition of “Late Night in a Wax Museum” from beatless ambience with the help of some Far Eastern scales to Pink Floyd-influenced mid-tempo rock jam is nice, but it is, predictably, the “Jekyll and Hyde Suite” that astounds more than anything. It begins with a quick overture consisting largely of humongous minor-key pipe organs, but eventually progresses into a quiet, mournful passage for Jekyll and a wild, evil romp for Hyde, complete with transformative, largely improvised transitions. In a nutshell, it’s prog-indie-rock at its most outlandish, which will either delight or repulse listeners. If you find the Flaming Lips too conservative for your tastes, you may have found your new favorite band.
Water Sphere begs the question: How much is too much? For all of the variety in these ten songs, it’s hard not to long just a bit for more of the relative simplicity of the instrumental “Comets”, or even the comparatively reserved menace of opener “Caught in My Trap”. The constant change and kitchen sink orchestration can’t help but become overwhelming over the course of a mere nine songs. Still, the musicianship is fantastic, and the ambition is admirable—add a dash of focus, and we could have the next major indie heroes on our hands. Water Sphere could be our sneak peek.