On their latest release, Lotus throw a new element into their sound: lyrics! Too bad they're better musicians than wordsmiths.
Lotus have always occupied a nebulous place in the instrumental rock world. They're not quite post-rock, although their long, building pieces almost make them a funkier Explosions in the Sky. Nor do their electronic tendencies fit in well with the jam-band scene -- as prone to improvisation as they may be, these guys cull little of their influence from Phish or The Dead. But after seven years of making their own way, it's seems that Lotus are tired of being alone: their latest release, Hammerstrike, continues the trend started by 2006's The Strength of Weak Ties toward more traditional rock structures elements, to good effect and bad.
Certainly this album is more focused than any of their previous releases. On their live albums Lotus usually stretched songs out past the 15-minute mark, and even on their first two studio albums it was rare for a track to clock in at fewer than eight. But no song on Hammerstrike runs much longer than six minutes, and their relative brevity works in the band's favor -- no song overstays its welcome, and each one is crammed full of musical ideas.
But the big change on Hammerstrike isn't musical at all: while a good half of the songs here are straight instrumentals, the other half are -- for the first time -- accompanied by lyrics. And it's here that the band gets into a bit of trouble. The problem doesn’t spring so much from the inclusion of words as the words themselves. Bad lyrics are, of course, rather more prevalent than good lyrics in rock music, and for the type of music that Lotus makes, it might seem that what they're saying doesn't actually much matter. After all, nobody gives Daft Punk any grief for building a whole song around "One more time / we're going to celebrate". (Well, nobody worth listening to, anyway.)
But the very fact that Lotus has added lyrics to their music after being a purely instrumental band for so long suggests that there's something in these lyrics that's important for us to hear -- that, indeed, the band felt that their sound on this disc was not complete without them. And in no place did I understand why the words are important at all. "Out with the old / in with the new / lets hit refresh / and start anew" sings a robotic voice during "Bellwether", before moving into a muttered verse in which only the occasional phrase ("Cajun analyst", "breakdown mama mama") is even intelligible. (As a side note, I'd like very much for bands to stop with the intentionally inaudible lyrics. I'm looking at you, Battles.) Later in the disc, on "Modicum", a more traditional singer croons, "You came / to me / took my hand and / pulled up!", and the triumphant mood is spoiled somewhat by the complete lack of context.
All this is made even more frustrating by the strength of the music itself throughout, and the instrumental tracks rank among the best Lotus have ever done. "Behind Midwest Storefronts", the opener, combines a fuzzy, powerful bass with a soaring electric guitar line and some surprisingly moving strings. "Hammerstrike" and "One Last Hurrah" are funky, fun numbers, and the latter is particularly helped by a liberal dose of synths. And the album closer, "Disappear In A Blood Red Sky", is four minutes of near perfection: dancing electric guitars, intricate drumming, and a lovely chorus of "oohs". It is a distillation of everything Lotus were going for on this disc. It's just too bad they insisted on singing nonsense over the rest of it.