Imitating Aeroplanes is a primarily electronic duo featuring Tord Øverland Knudsen of the Wombats and Marius Drogsås Hadsen of Team Me. The pair were childhood friends and had made music together before, but Planet Language is their first official album. The duo throws around terms like “anything goes” to describe their approach and “a series of red wine and prog nights” to explain their influences. That is probably true, but the resulting album is not nearly as freewheeling as those descriptions make it sound.
Planet Language does get off to a terrific start. The mostly instrumental “Roppongi Hills” begins with a lively, pseudo-Japanese melody, which is quickly doubled on piano and joined by thumping taiko-style drums on the beat. Widescreen electronic chords and snare drum rolls build the song until the final minute when a chorus of wordless voices adds to the big, big feel of the track. It’s a fun, interesting opener, and it leads into the catchy electropop masterpiece “Stomping Ground”. A pinging electronic melody opens the song before bass, drums, and a fuzzed-out guitar enter and the slightly nasal vocals begin. The relatively quiet verse gives way to the huge hooks of the chorus: powerful backbeat drums punctuated by the pulsing bassline, layers of synth chords filling out the backgrounds, a blipping high register synth countermelody, and sing along vocals. “Holding on to everything we’re missing / Moving on was never easy / I’m reliving distant memories, but / Losing my foothold, leaving my stomping ground.” Even the quiet mid-song bridge where the vocals softly repeat, “Headed somewhere better” is a well-considered comedown from the chorus.
After that one-two punch, the album slows down considerably, both in tempo and song quality. “Diamond Dust” is a decent track, with a complex drum rhythm underpinning its relaxed feel. But there’s not much else going on musically or melodically to really grab the ear. At best, the harmonized layers of guitars and synths in the traditional guitar solo slot is interesting, but not enough to make up for the relatively staid verses and chorus sections. “Planet Language” begins with an intro that seems like it’s building to something, but then fizzles into another laid-back song. The song takes a break from itself and essentially stops everything for a ponderous fuzz guitar solo, but then it shifts right back into that laid-back mode. A flute-like synth solo shows up later on, but it still doesn’t make that main riff feel compelling.
It goes on like this through the entire middle of the record. Lead single “Hourglass” is probably the best track in this section, with a solid riff from a hybrid instrument called a mandolaika and a pretty good synth accompaniment. Lyrically the song is based on the Japanese myth of Urashima Taro, who slept for 300 years. This makes for an interesting story once one knows what to listen for in the lyrics, but musically the song doesn’t quite hit the energy level of the album openers. “H.I.T.S” is a pretty effective take on early ‘80s new wave, combining shimmering synths with fat low-end synth bass. It also has a good refrain that finds a melodic peak. The song even shows a bit of that prog-rock influence by fading away before returning for a coda that’s essentially unrelated to the rest of the song. The bright, uptempo “Billy Boel” is even more indebted to ‘80s synthpop than the rest of the album. This song at least has a good energy level but lacks a compelling vocal melody. Which is too bad because the synth riff is quite good. This song also finishes about a minute before it actually ends, decaying into a mess of soft synth sounds that are barely connected to the rest of the song.
These two codas really do nothing to show that Imitating Aeroplanes was taking the right lessons from progressive rock. Fortunately, the eight-minute instrumental closer “Sakebad i Kanazawa” is a different story. The first two minutes float languidly along like new age background music in some ‘70s sci-fi film. Then the drums and bass come in and for the next two minutes, the rhythm section jams out while high-pitched synths glisten through the background. At the four-minute mark, though, the song turns on a dime into a high energy, Daft Punk-style electro-disco rock song. This is high quality homage. Take the synth arpeggios from “Crescendolls”, the disco rhythm guitars from Random Access Memories, and the processed, heavy guitar breaks from Human After All, and you have an idea of what the second half of “Sakebad i Kanazawa” sounds like.
Tracks three through seven, taken on their own, would represent a listenable but largely unremarkable debut for Imitating Aeroplanes. But the beginning and end of this album are so strong that they lift up the rest of the record. During the age of streaming it’s easy enough to say “just track down those three songs and you’re all set.” But there’s enough going on in the middle of Planet Language that some listeners will undoubtedly find more to like there than I did. That makes it worth a recommendation for people to check it out and find out for themselves.