The Norwegian band's second album has turned out to be one of the year's biggest surprises.
Whatever you want to call it, be it the tasteful term "post hardcore" or the far more cringe-inducing "emo", the sound which started with such talented bands as Jawbreaker, Sunny Day Real Estate, and the Promise Ring has been co-opted, bastardized, and diluted by so many lazy lesser-talents over the last five years that the search for good new post-hardcore is almost futile. For every ambitious album like Chiodos's Bone Palace Ballet and crafty pop-rock crossover (Paramore's lovable Riot!), there are dozens of releases that do nothing but perpetuate the negative stereotype, painting emo as being every bit as overly trite and image-conscious as hair metal was in the late '80s. In 2008, the genre is perpetually teetering towards self-parody, from the comical "investigative" reports on self-mutiliating emo kids appearing on American television, to Jared Leto's embarrassing displays with 30 Seconds to Mars, to Pete Wentz's pretentiousness, to the Warped Tour's day camp for comb-over-sporting, girls' jeans-wearing teen boys, to the unbelievable anti-emo violence in Mexico. Someone, anyone, please throw us a frickin' bone.
Mercifully, a Norwegian quintet has come along and given post-hardcore a huge shot in the arm with an album that delves into the early days of the sound, adds a few contemporary twists, and tops it off with a vocal style that goes past effeminate hand-wringing into full-blown otherworldly territory. Of course, like most bands, it took a while for Lukestar to find its voice. Their 2004 debut Alpine Unit was a good replication of Sunny Day Real Estate's oeuvre but devoid of a real identity of its own. Four years later, while those post-hardcore roots are still undeniable, the Oslo band has undergone a fascinating change in musical identity for album number two, adding a more subtle, introspective element to the music, infusing the jagged guitars with a sumptuous dreampop influence that approaches the gentle euphoria of Danish stars Mew.
Although the actual hooks are exceptionally strong on Lake Toba, it's the vocal approach of singer/guitarist Truls Heggero that makes this album particularly unique. Ranking somewhere between the gender-bending falsetto of Delays singer Greg Gilbert and the eerily strange singing style of Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós, the already high-voiced Heggero often jumps an octave or two higher. It sounds jarring at first, simply because it's the last thing we're expecting, but once Truls gets going with those soaring melodies in the choruses, it's impossible not to give in.
For the best example of Lake Toba's charmingly quirky appeal, look no further than the first track "White Shade". Heggero's voice echoes the chiming guitar notes underneath, his affectations adding a childlike innocence to the song, and after a stark bridge underscored by Farfisa organ the chorus bursts open with a thumping backbeat and slyly discordant guitar chords, Heggero reverting to his normal tenor delivery. Structure-wise, it's nothing we haven't heard thousands of times before, but there's a sense of optimism and unabashed ebullience to this and the other 11 tracks that's absolutely beguiling. That's right, emo gone happy.
"Shape of Light" is propulsive by comparison, Heggero's vocals double-tracked to great effect. Backed up by a stuttering lead riff, "The Shade You Hide" kicks off with a melody that sounds like the idle, nonsensical singing of a child. Heggero's already indecipherable singing style becomes even more ethereal during the stately title track. "In a Hologram" and the tender "Peregrin", meanwhile, come closest to sounding like conventional post-hardcore. Like "White Shade", the clinchers on each of these tracks, though, are those melodic payoffs, those gigantic choruses that instantly stick in your head, and which show tremendous potential for wider appeal than just fans of Scandinavian modern rock.
Already a major act in Norway, and a terrific live act for that matter, Lukestar is the kind of band that, given half a chance, could achieve crossover success in North America. The hooks are gorgeous enough to draw in a pop audience. The angularity of the guitars and insistent drumming, which is phenomenal throughout the record, would go over big on something like the Warped Tour. And the band's unique take on the first wave of emo, which few bands care to emulate these days, not to mention their obscurity, is enough to attract curious indie scenesters. Cliques and scenes aside, though, Lake Toba is one of the year's great discoveries. Tens of thousands of Norwegians can't be wrong.