Robert Scott has been an integral part of the New Zealand pop/rock scene, the Flying Nun crowd. With The Clean, Bats, Electric Blood, Magick Heads and probably others, Scott filled up much of the 1980s and 1990s with guitar-based pop music that is both upbeat and catchy (“jangly” is the common keyword) and eccentric. He’s always seemed as concerned with sound and atmosphere as lyrics and melody, and The Creeping Unknown, his first album under his own name, is no different. A mix of instrumental pieces and more standard pop songs, The Creeping Unknown is a beautiful, immersing work.
The album’s first track, “Harmonic Deluxe”, is the one song not composed by Scott alone. Yet both the song’s co-writer, David Kilgour, and the song’s mood should be familiar to fans of The Clean, et al. It’s a basically instrumental version of the sort of hyper-melodic pop-rock that Kilgour and Scott created in The Clean. About a third of the album is in this vein. Scott sings lead vocals on four tracks that are all superb pop-rock songs in the tradition of his finest work of the past. The best is “Fog and Wind”, where Scott, Kilgour and drummer Greg Cairns surround a touching evocation of lonelieness with a windstorm of guitar, synthesizers and drums. The track epitomizes the standout feature of The Creeping Unknown, the way it effortlessly blends unique sonic effects and all-encompassing atmosphere with great pop songs.
The bulk of the album consists of odd, abstract instrumentals. The album has been billed as Scott’s musical portrait the South Island countryside. Never having been there, I can’t attest to its success on those terms. Yet the album does come off as a musical portrait of somewhere. Throughout The Creeping Unknown, Scott relies on guitars, keyboards and the occasional tape effects to create a sonic place, one which is both spooky and beautiful.
The tracks range in length from 34 seconds to five-plus minutes, but the majority lie on the shorter side. You’d think the ever-shifting effect given by so many short tracks would unsettle the album’s goal of creating a cohesive mood, but it doesn’t. In fact, many of the tracks blend together into one piece, with a continually haunting sound.
Scott’s status as both a pop songwriter and a sonic manipulator is well-established. But what’s wonderful about the album is the way the simple pleasures of pop blend with the more abstract, experimental pieces. One of the most unique tracks is “The Wick Effect”, a sparse, keyboard-driven pop meditation. Scott’s layered vocals have a rustic yet dreamy quality, and his lyrics deliver everyday concerns about life and death over a bizarre, sparse musical track. In that way, Scott effectively walks the line between dreams and reality, between the ethereal and the earth. On the whole, The Creeping Unknown creeps over you with that same feeling, the feeling that everything’s real and imagined, that life’s about dirt and air, mystery and reality.