Miracle Fortress: Was I the Wave?

[28 June 2011]

By Matt Edsall

It’s been four years since Graham Van Pelt released an album as Miracle Fortress, the project he does all by his lonesome with the use of loop stations and computer software. That last album was his debut, Five Roses, which went on to be nominated for the 2007 Polaris Music Prize, the prestigious Canadian award based completely upon artistic value, rather than the biases of sales and/or your record label’s power. (Thankfully the Grammys haven’t succumbed to that behavior, or else John Mayer wouldn’t have gotten the praise he deserved for that “St. Patrick’s Day” knock-off, “Daughters”.) So keep in mind: this isn’t just a three-year follow-up to an album. This is a three-year follow-up to an amazingly terrific debut. Van Pelt follows it up decently…sort of.

Like other artists who take years to put out a record, Van Pelt automatically put himself under major scrutiny with Was I the Wave?, because no matter what he came up with, listeners were going to judge it harshly, strictly out of impatience. The thing about this album is, even if Van Pelt put it out months after his debut, it probably would still receive the same criticism as now, due to the fact that it’s drastically different from what his fans expect from him. It’s not that experimentation doesn’t yield success. TV on the Radio got away with it on Return to Cookie Mountain, as did Radiohead with Kid A. Yet those albums exhibited those bands at their best form at that time, while Miracle Fortress’ first album showcases a much harder-working musician than his newest effort.

Five Roses showed off his technique with a looping station, as he layered guitar, bass and keyboards prominently on every song to create rock ‘n’ roll. Was I the Wave? instead displays an electronica-happy Van Pelt who seems to have been obsessed with ‘80s goth-pop for the past four years (distinctly Depeche Mode; judging by his voice, he’s obsessed with Dave Gahan). Considering the mass excitement over electronica this entire past year, that’s not necessarily a bad direction to have moved in, but the move came from a guy who’s already proven he’s way more talented than beat-machines and ethereal synthesizers.  Due to the complexity of his first album, he’s cursed himself to sound boring if he doesn’t make music that masks three other members being absent from it.

Perfect examples of this conundrum are the four interludes on this album. Out of 10 tracks, four clock in at under two-and-a-half minutes each and merely consist of earthy synthesizers (minus the final track “Until”). Due to the spacing out of these interludes among tracks one, four, seven, and ten, it seems that Van Pelt views them as act breaks, like a play. This challenge is very artistic, but it also technically makes the album consist of only six songs at 31 minutes total. So after four years of fan expectation, we’re left with an EP of decently fun, electronic pop tunes…and four boring keyboard experiments.

It’s not that Miracle Fortress’ sophomore effort sucks; the six full songs are very listenable. It’s just that Graham Van Pelt seems lazier this time around. Most likely he wanted to prove he could do it all on his own again, but even James Murphy used studio musicians for LCD Soundsystem’s recordings, and have you ever heard anyone discredit him for writing and composing all their arrangements? Van Pelt should consider walking in those footsteps for his third attempt. Three friends play with Miracle Fortress in concert since he can’t loop everything on stage, so he should bring those guys into the studio.

The electronica genre wasn’t a bad one to dabble in, but what Was I The Wave? is missing is more punch and pizzazz, more depth musically. If you could hook this album up to a heart-rate monitor, it would never flat-line, but it sure as hell wouldn’t register a healthy beating heart. The defibrillator is on stand-by for Miracle Fortress’ next album, and it remains to be seen if Van Pelt will need us to yell “Clear!”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/142272-miracle-fortress-was-i-the-wave/