Of Montreal: Paralytic Stalks

Photo: Patrick Heagney

Kevin Barnes takes Of Montreal out of its sexy funk phase and into its...20th century atonal minimalism phase? Yikes.

Of Montreal

Paralytic Stalks

Label: Polyvinyl
US Release Date: 2012-02-07
UK Release Date: 2012-02-06

It's pretty clear by now that Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes follows his own muse. This is the man who gradually transformed Of Montreal from a charmingly twee, childlike indie-pop band to a one-man dance-rock project where he reflects on his sexual foibles and fantasies. Barnes has also spent much of the past decade pretending the group's first six albums don't exist. You'll never hear anything from before 2004's Satanic Panic in the Attic at an Of Montreal concert. Even if we take a page from Barnes and ignore the early period of his career, the musical and lyrical progression from the cheery pop of Satanic Panic to the bitter, sometimes self-flagellating funk of 2010's False Priest is surprising. The new Paralytic Stalks may be Barnes' most extreme musical change yet.

Things kick off in much the same vein as False Priest, but Barnes has a bomb to drop on his audience in the album's second half. "Gelid Ascent" is a slow, dark rocker that finds Barnes complaining loudly about another person, presumably an ex. The song opens with 50 seconds of noise before a spoken section that begins, "You're what parasites evolved from" and gets more bitter from there. Eventually the music becomes grounded by a strong, steady rhythm section while waves of distorted guitar and synth noises swirl around in the background. Second track "Spiteful Intervention" picks right up where False Priest's closing diatribe left off. "It's fucking sad that we need a tragedy / To occur to gain a fresh perspective in our lives / Nothing happens for a reason / There's no point even pretending / You know the sad truth as well as I!" Clearly Barnes has decided to expand his lyrical focus to external, social targets as well. Despite the strident quality of the lyrics, "Spiteful Intervention" has a loose groove to it and a couple of actual hooks. Instrumentally, the music is largely piano and strings, with occasional crazy drum fills and synth sounds. It's weird, but it works.

It continues like this for the first five songs. "Dour Percentage" is a '70s-style soft-rock dance song, complete with falsetto, warm piano chords, saxophone-driven interludes and flutes. Lots and lots of flutes. "We Will Commit Wolf Murder" sounds a lot like a more traditional Of Montreal song, complete with a great, active bassline and a hyperactive least until the last two minutes, which goes through a Skeletal Lamping-style musical shift into a dark vamp that's essentially a completely different song. "Malefic Dowery" is a straight-up ballad, with acoustic guitars, piano, and more fluttering flutes. Barnes uses this opportunity to trot out his love of big words, regardless of how they fit rhythmically into the song. The most egregious example: "Now I live in fear of your schizophrenic genius / It's a tempestuous despot that I can't seem to propitiate."

If this kind of thing was all Barnes did on Paralytic Stalks, it would be the logical next step from False Priest. This album begins to move away from the funk influences and overtly sexual lyrics that have dominated the last few Of Montreal albums and incorporating more orchestral instruments. As he expands his sonic textures, Barnes seems less interested in the hook-based melodic songwriting that has been his bread and butter throughout his career. But the second half of Paralytic Stalks goes way, way further than that. The album's last four songs are each over seven minutes long, with the final track clocking in at 13 minutes plus. The music gets pretty out there.

"Ye, Renew the Plaintiff" rocks hard for the first four of its nearly nine minutes. It might be the hardest-hitting track Barnes has written since "She's a Rejector," with squalling guitar solos and Barnes yelling his head off. A flute-dominated transition then gives way to the song's smoother second half, which has the same driving beat, but is dominated by piano and saxophones. The song ends by gradually disintegrating into noise, but at least it never really loses its driving beat. The album really starts to go off the rails on track seven, "Wintered Debts", which shuffles through a good three or four styles in its first minute. Folk ballad, country shuffle and disco-pop all make appearances, shoved up against each other with no transition and making little musical sense. The song continues to bounce around between these styles before tuneless piano tinkling takes over while Barnes continues to quietly sing lyrics. The song's next three minutes feature an array of instruments creating a formless soundscape with no melody or beat. Eventually Barnes shows up again to sing a quiet piano ballad in the last minute, as if this makes up for the aimlessness of the rest of the song.

All of this is just table setting for "Exorcismic Breeding Knife", which is literally the musical antithesis of what Of Montreal is known for. This track is seven minutes and forty seconds of atonal minimalism. There is no tune, no beat, certainly none of the catchy hooks that brought the band to prominence. The track has more in common with 20th century composers like Schoenberg or Penderecki, men who experimented with things like tone clusters and rejected traditional tonality and musical structure. The radical departures continue on "Authentic Pyrrhic Remission", the album's final song. It starts off with some genuinely catchy melodies, but those melodies are undercut throughout by oddball noises lurking below the surface of the music. And the noise overwhelms the melody completely about five minutes into the track. The noise continues for the next seven minutes until the track ends with another quiet piano ballad.

On the one hand, it's nice that Kevin Barnes is in a position where he feels he can make exactly the sort of music he wants to make, without regard to genre or expectation. Since Of Montreal has been his personal one-man project for years now, it makes sense that he'd put tracks like "Wintered Debts" and "Exorcismic Breeding Knife" on an Of Montreal record. But it also seems clear that there's nobody in Barnes' life who will stand up to him or give him some much-needed advice. He's by far the biggest act on Polyvinyl Records, so they won't say boo to him. The rest of the Of Montreal live band are hired guns who can be replaced. Even a longtime associate like guitarist Brian Poole, who's been in the band since before Satanic Panic, apparently doesn't have any say in the music Barnes creates. These experiments in atonality and soundscapes are perfect for a Barnes side project, but as music from Of Montreal they're completely out of sync with anything he's put on an album to this point (although not, it should be noted, as out of sync with some of the music he's put on his much lower-profile EP's). Barnes has asked a lot of his audience before, and we all liked Hissing Fauna so much that we put up with the half-baked ADD song experiments of Skeletal Lamping and hoped that the solid but not great False Priest was a return to form. But Paralytic Stalks may be an interesting referendum on art vs. commerce. I'm not sure that the fans who turn out to see Of Montreal's indie-rock circus of a live show are going to want to sit through 20-30 minutes of stuff like "Authentic Pyrrhic Remission". Maybe this will turn out to be the kind of crazy departure that somehow takes Of Montreal to the next level. I think it's more likely that Paralytic Stalks won't win Kevin Barnes any new fans, and may actually drive away some of his longtime followers.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.