On their third album, the artsy UK synthpop outfit CYMBALS have matured, but have they gotten better?
A lot has changed with Cymbals since their last album, The Age of Fracture, came out in early 2014. For one, they have gone from a quartet to a duo, with mainstays Jack Cleverly (vocals, guitar, keyboards) Dan Simons (keyboards, viola) remaining. Cleverly went through various personal struggles. The band also switched producers, going from Dreamtrak to Kristian Robinson.
Put all that together and Cymbals’ third album, Light in Your Mind, is a much different proposition than its predecessor. Synthesizers and pop remain at the forefront, but here they are placed in a much different context. The Age of Fracture was a proudly retro, dancefloor-focused affair that delivered smart hooks, meaty beats, and quite a bit of variety. It was art pop with the art firmly on the outside. The downside was a lack of emotional investment. If anything, the songs on The Age of Fracture sound even better three years later, touching on currently trendy ‘80s markers from sugary FM synthpop to taut, nervous post-punk. But the stakes were nothing more than, as Cleverly put it, “dancing too much”.
Light in Your Mind is smaller, more introspective, modest. It is more than the hangover after the party. It is the humbled reconsideration of everything, the near-breakdown that comes from many mornings-after strung together. It’s not much of a dance album.
It is, however, mature. Not quite a concept album, it is nonetheless held together by themes of loss, betrayal and, as the title of the single puts it, decay. The hooks are secondary; they are subtle enough that songs tend to bleed into each other and become confused in the mind. The beats are solid, but they are rendered by session drummers in a dry, sheepish fashion, sometimes stuttering awkwardly as if to express Cleverly’s self-doubt. Even Cleverly’s singing is scaled back. In place of the previous confident, Cockney-accented proclamations, he now half-speaks or croons, sometimes stretching his register. It is heartfelt but not always flattering.
There is plenty of good, melancholic synth/indie pop here, mind. “Decay” incorporates some exotic vocal samples and Simons’ mournful viola to nice effect. “Car Crash” has a nice little synth lick, a general brightness to it, and a chorus that threatens to stand out, Cleverly admitting “I walk like time and God are on my side”, as if he knows better. Best of all is “Talk to Me”, with its playful, charismatic staccato guitar and synth work. Perhaps tellingly, that song is a reworking of a 2015 single, recorded by the Age of Fracture lineup.
There are also a couple of pretty instrumental interludes and the emotional centerpiece, “ASMR”. One can only assume this stands for “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response”. The scientific description of this phenomenon would be “warm fuzzy”, and the song certainly induces that. Growing from hushed whispers to gently ascending chords and tingly synth arpeggios, it is the perfect soundtrack for some euphoric crying.
At it best, Light in Your Mind is an empathetic breakup album that also offers some hope in the form of pop music. The problem is large swathes of it are not just somber but also dull. You can hear “I Thought I Knew You” struggle to get going, and once it does, it’s fine. “Splitting” (double entendre?) and “Fully Automated Luxury” are about as engaging and dynamic as those titles suggest. “Lifetime Achievement Award” means to be a quaint, “so this is what it all means” piano ballad to end the album, but it comes across as more open mic night.
It is difficult to be too hard on Light in Your Mind, because it certainly has emotional resonance Cymbals’ previous work has lacked. Also, it is cleanly, cozily produced by Robinson (Ariel Pink, Weird Dreams). However, it is almost too large a swing away from the physically and aurally engaging The Age of Fracture and Dreamtrak's relatively dynamic touch. The good news is there is ample evidence to suggest Cymbals might yet discover a best-of-both-worlds approach. And what a great album that could be.