“It’s been a while – can’t remember why I waited so long.” Those aren’t the first words on An Archaea, but they serve as a fitting introduction to Amusement Parks on Fire’s first album in 11 years.
Despite this self-described “88-month moratorium”, the British indie outfit have not been completely out of the picture. Founder/leader Michael Feerick dabbled in a couple of other projects, including Young Light with Micah Calabrese from Giant Drag. He also reissued part of Amusement Parks’ back catalog and put together an outtakes collection. The last few years have seen two new Amusement Parks on Fire EPs as well as a tour. Still, An Archaea feels like a proper re-arrival, and what an arrival it is.
That a record this grand and teeming with sound should be named for a type of single-celled organism may seem ironic. But Amusement Parks on Fire have always embraced contradictions and defied easy explanations. Feerick was initially influenced by grunge-era alternative bands like Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. While certainly drawing on those bloodlines, his music has been described as everything from post-prog and art-rock to noise-rock and the oft-dreaded shoegaze. He writes enough hooks and riffs to fill arenas yet seems content to occupy a solid but unassuming position on the fringe.
For the last Amusement Parks on Fire album, he brought his band to Los Angeles, worked with name producers, and did the whole strung-out-in-Joshua-Tree trip. The resulting opus, Road Eyes (2010), was a magnificent collection that boasted an unapologetically big and polished “Los Angeles sound” but did so with strings, 7/8 time signatures, and what sounded like the Ray Conniff Singers on backing vocals.
Quite literally exploding with a decade’s worth of built-up energy, ideas, and guitar sounds, this belated follow-up is a further evolution of Feerick’s uncanny ability to take familiar elements of indie rock-with-a-capital-R, stretch them out, and subvert them with unique arrangements and esoteric artistic flourishes. When you look at a drop of pond water under a microscope, the effect is simultaneously fascinating and yet chilling and disorienting because you realize what you see with the naked eye is not anywhere close to the entire picture. That’s what An Archaea does with rock. There are urgent guitars, sub-bass depth charges, sonar pings, sampled radio chatter, a pet dugong—and that’s just album highlight “Breakers”.
Marine and nautical references abound, in song titles like “Old Salt”, “Boom Vang”, “Diving Bell”, and the aforementioned “Breakers”. Also, in addition to the album title, there are references to chemistry and microbiology: “No Fission”, “Atomised”, amoebas, isotopes. Though An Archaea is not a concept album, the overall feeling is for a need to escape from a crazy world, to go somewhere else to retain sanity and some semblance of hope. That place could be as vast as the ocean or as tiny as an atom. “We are skipping down a tightrope / To see if another isotope could be our one and only last hope,” Feerick says on “Aught Can Wait”. The backing track is built on whalesong guitar swells and a punchy programmed rhythm, with an epic, blistering guitar solo that gives way to a yearning, choral humming.
If it all sounds heady, it is. This is Amusement Parks’ most challenging album. There are readily accessible pop tracks such as the gently swinging “Old Salt” and jaunty, XTC-like title track. But even these are peppered with buzzsaw guitars and interludes consisting of irato-style notes repeated in punishing fashion.
However, An Archaea really isn’t all that difficult to get one’s head around. Part of that is because Feerick hasn’t forgotten how to write sharp melodies or use rock dynamics to thrilling effect. Single “Boom Vang”, a cathartic, swirling track with injections of liquid silver guitar and a Tortoise-like music-box breakdown, is an ideal entry point. Also, Feerick’s silky-smooth, enthusiastic voice is always welcoming, lending an innate charisma to everything he sings.
In a 2017 interview with The Big Takeover, Feerick promised: “for anyone waiting [for a new album]… it’ll be fucking worth it.” He wasn’t wrong. You could be forgiven for thinking they didn’t make bold, immersive, envelope-pushing alternative rock albums like this anymore. But now that you know An Archaea exists, there is no excuse not to hear it.