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Photo: Courtesy of Polyvinyl Records

Of Montreal’s Pandemic-fueled Freewave Lucifer Is a Challenging Listen

Of Montreal’s Freewave Lucifer was inspired by and created during COVID’s isolation. Here and there is a catchy moment, but those bits are rarely repeated.

Freewave Lucifer fck
Of Montreal
29 July 2022

Of Montreal has had an incredible variety of sounds over their roughly 25 years of existence. The band’s closest brush with commercial success came back in the mid-2000s. Kevin Barnes, the group’s creative force and only permanent member, transitioned from twee indie-pop style into power-pop and then confessional dance-rock. The album trio of Satanic Panic in the Attic, The Sunlandic Twins, and Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? raised the band’s profile.

Following his muse as always, Barnes immediately undermined this success with 2008’s Skeletal Lamping, a record that featured jarring musical shifts within tracks and rarely settled into something resembling traditional songs. Of Montreal never again captured the zeitgeist, but Barnes has kept releasing music. Each new album is an adventure, but whether listeners will enjoy that musical experience is an open question.

2020’s UR Fun was a collection of tracks that hearkened back to those days when Barnes wrote weird but hooky songs that were exciting and danceable. It was a record set up for an extensive live tour, which was scuttled by the global pandemic. Barnes then swerved in 2021 and self-released a 20-track double album, I Feel Safe With You, Trash, which he described as a record created by doing the opposite of whatever his natural creative instincts told him to do. 2022’s new release, Freewave Lucifer f<ck f^ck f>ck, is more compact, with only seven tracks that wrap up in 35 minutes.

According to the press materials, Freewave Lucifer was inspired by and created during the isolation period of COVID. That’s demonstrated in multiple ways across the record, but the most obvious is the lack of live instruments. Barnes pulls out a guitar or a bass here and there, but other than that, these tracks are created almost entirely using synths and other electronics. They are also generally not created as sing-along songs. Here and there, Barnes hits upon a catchy moment, but those bits are rarely repeated.

The opener, “marijuana’s a working woman”, begins with a bouncy bass guitar and crashing piles of synth noise. The familiar, melodic sound of Barnes’ singing soon joins in. The striking, sardonic couplet, “When people ask me my gender / I just tell them ‘brunette'” is the standout line here. Barnes, who has always been at least somewhat genderfluid, now requests to be referred to as “he/she/they”, and this bit reinforces that request. Musically the track drifts into a slow, beat-free section before returning to the opening feel. A second transition takes the song into a much lighter section where Barnes repeats, “Maybe we should fight it out / That seems to make everything better,” before the sounds get oppressive and dark. From here, the song slouches through several more progressively noisier, deconstructed sections. It resolves into a sort of unsettling lounge style for the final minute, leaving the listener free of the oppressive waves of synths but far from comfortable.

Musical discomfort is often the direction Barnes seems most interested in exploring on Freewave Lucifer. The second track, “ofrenda-flanger-ego a gogo”, begins with a gentle clean guitar riff as Barnes sings about an “ofrenda in flames” and how “Phoebe fakes orgasms as a career.” Then the guitar disappears in favor of thick, trippy vocal harmonies as Barnes repeats, “Dripping in psychosis / Humming ‘If I Only had a Brain.'” The song returns to the guitar riff only for Barnes’ lyrics to become even more stream of consciousness. The track functions as a ballad, but its effect is once again discomfiting.

“après thee déclassé” starts with Barnes in a sort of moaning spoken word style with very little accompaniment. It then expands into waves of synths and harmonies added to the (still spoken word) vocals. Next, it pushes into a funk section without a groove while Barnes repeats, “I hope it brings you down.” The track meanders through several more sections over its five-minute length, never stopping long enough for the listener to get acclimated. As the song finishes, it slides into “modern art bewilders”, which begins with soft synth flute and string tones. At the halfway point, the track abruptly shifts to a slightly more upbeat style with genuinely funky bass and drums. That only lasts for about a minute, though, as the final chunk of the song goes to a bloopy, synth percussion-heavy feel.

There are tracks on the album that feel more like coherent songs. “blab sabbath lathe of maiden” begins with about 40 seconds of ambient noise, but once the beat kicks in the song bops along as high-energy dance-pop. Lines like, “I’m a mutt / I drink human blood / My mistake / Did I mention I’m a stud?” and “I was creaming when I wrote this / So forgive me if it makes you wet” ensure it likely won’t become a breakout hit. Of Montreal doesn’t have the Cardi B.-like notoriety to get noticed for raunchy lyrics. The bits where the beat drops out feel like natural progressions instead of head-spinning changes. The final minute of the song features increasingly noisy and fast electronic percussion in the background that finally crests, dropping immediately into the downbeat opening of “après thee déclassé”.

“blab sabbath” is probably the song on Freewave Lucifer that most resembles classic era Of Montreal, but the album closes with two other notably focused tracks. “nightsift” has a low, pulsing, ’80s John Carpenter electronic vibe. The main melody first shows up as a synth riff, but Barnes picks it up as the vocal melody a little ways into the song. The background music expands in interesting ways, first with a bit of crunchy guitar and later with grimy electronics. Barnes can’t quite stick with what’s working for the totality of the song, though. The final minute abruptly abandons the previous mood for something much sparser and less engaging.

This leads into “hmmm”, which begins with a slow, mournful acoustic guitar. After 30 seconds, an electronic beat comes in, followed by more ’80s synths in a similar style to “nightsift”. Barnes sings, “Grief is an anvil to the skull / Grief is an echo that lives in silences,” which is a pretty clear mission statement for the song. The feel of the song remains isolated and lonely, even when the percussion and synth sounds multiply. It’s not exactly a pleasant listen as Barnes continues to sing about grief and depression. It is a successful track thematically, though, as the music conveys a consistent mood throughout.

Obviously, Freewave Lucifer f<ck f^ck f>ck is not the sort of record that is going to appeal to a wide audience. Even among Of Montreal fans, it’s likely listeners who enjoyed the esoteric experimentation of albums like Paralytic Stalks and White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood will be fully into this one. For me, it’s fascinating to check in with Kevin Barnes from a music analysis perspective but it’s not always an enjoyable experience. Still, there’s enough tunefulness here between “blab sabbath”, “nightsift”, and “hmmm” to make the album worth a try for longtime fans.

RATING 5 / 10