Perennial dream-pop leapfrogger Glen Johnson takes Piano Magic on another stylistic detour that's bolder and sterner than anything they've produced beforehand.
Rather than get into the bland little fine points about Piano Magic’s state of the union (the project was always meant to be a revolving door of themes, styles and players, with singer/composer Glen Johnson as the only constant), I’ll just straight up tell you my impression of Ovations the first time I heard it. I didn’t like it at all. I found it joyless, drab, and repellent. I lamented the passing of their delicate, frightened beauty (Writers Without Homes, a fluke, notwithstanding) and thought, in my shortsightedness, that it had “bad record” written all over it. The overly gracious All Music Guide awarded it only two stars, and maybe I had let that influence my thinking a bit. When it finished, I told myself that I never wanted to hear it again.
You can see where this is going. On my second batch of listens, I liked it a lot. I found it haunting, stern, and diabolical. I plunged into its lightless torture chamber environment and felt the claustrophobia, as I’d done with Tool and Massive Attack a decade ago. At certain moments, I contemplated whether this was, in fact, the best record Piano Magic ever wrote. It was probably the boldest one, in any case, and perhaps the most risky because of it. Throughout this period, it’s safe to say that I abused the record, playing it over and over until I needed to sleep or until the neighbors told me that they needed to sleep.
Much time has since passed, and it’s allowed me to think about these extremely polar initial reactions that few records have ever invoked. My feeling about Ovations now, and for a while, is less a compromise of those two poles than an overlapping of them. I enjoy it and despise it all at once. Of course, a dirge of this consistency, beginning with a lovely little death waltz called “The Nightmare Goes On”, isn’t an easy thing to cozy up to: “This sadness in my eyes/The burden drags me down/It shames the storm outside/God knows I’ve tried and tried”. Oy vey. The person intoning these lines is Dead Can Dance’s Brendan Perry, whose demonic baritone sounds much like Johnson’s, and the song’s bells and strings are so Dead Can Dance-ish that I thought Piano Magic had put it on their record by mistake. Not so -- the second track, “March of the Atheists”, continues DCD’s gothic new age style full stop, and its positively evil dulcimers give life to the song’s relentless march like a Genghis Khan conquest. It’s probably Ovations’ most effective single moment that I oftentimes still want nothing to do with. It can ruin a pleasant, sunny day like that.
“March of the Atheists” also happens to contain the record’s most controversial lyrics, though Glen Johnson’s pungent poetry has never been for everyone’s tastes, and you can make it out quite clearly through the record. The first time I heard, “I can accept that you have your faith/So you must accept that I have none”, and “There’s God in your heart/But there’s blood on your hands”, I did a double-take. This is essentially Johnson telling religious zealots to shove their proselytism up their you-know-whats, and I can’t remember the last time a message like that was delivered with such a straightforward face-palm. Musically, however, I found the next track, “On Edge”, to be even more startling. Beginning with a quick, nervous industrial beat, Johnson documents an impending anxiety attack where the “pressure’s building up”, threatening that he could just “pull out the pin” at any time and detonate. He built a career on redefining dream pop, and now he wants to be Trent Reznor? Pretty freaky, but not a bad thing.
Though Piano Magic were more likely to push their own boundaries than those of existing genres, Ovations is still very backward looking, and not always in appealing ways. “March of the Atheists” has the ugliness of Coil’s Horse Rotorvator -- though it’s nowhere near as fantastic as that record -- and “On Edge” hints at NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine and Ministry’s The Land of Rape and Honey. On the latter two thirds of the record, however, Johnson recalls not one or two artists as much as a prototypical new wave fuddy-duddy, and the drum machines and synthesizers used to back him are pretty forgettable.
One interesting factor that defines and stagnates the album is the dearth of female vocals, heretofore a consistent Piano Magic feature. The first woman we hear is on the last song, “Exit”, where synth player Angèle David-Guillou joins Johnson for a few whispered verses. It’s both an oasis in the desert, lifting the music, and not enough to save the record from the doldrums. So why in the world do I like these lame songs? Why do a droopy violin and phony baloney castanets in “A Fond Farewell” draw me further in? Piano Magic keeps making me ask the “why” questions with surprising frequency. Glen Johnson, you baffle me. You amaze me.