I'm just going to go ahead and apologize in advance to The Snake The Cross The Crown and the band's PR reps. All these folks ever want is a straight review (hopefully favorable) and they're probably disappointed when some pretentious critic wanker turns a review into an exercise in self-reflection. But listening to Mander Salis, the debut full-length from the band, all I could think about were the ill-defined and yet lofty expectations of the average music critic.
For example, it's a common enough indictment in reviews to claim that a band is monotone and beats a single sound to death. Reviewers lament a lack of variation and style, and beg bands to try changing up the beats or the tones for a little differentiation. The Snake The Cross The Crown do not have this problem. In fact, in the course of just ten songs, Mander Salis covers an impressive range of moods and sounds, from austere prog rock to quiet acoustic laments to shredding guitar riffs to symphonic and ethereal balladry.
Another common bromide of the music reviewer is accusing a band of lacking maturity. We'll hold out some kind of brass ring for a band to aspire to in the future... if only they'll grow up and develop their sound beyond a comfortable association with youthful musical standards. Again, The Snake The Cross The Crown seems to have circumvented this charge in style. The band's first release was a brief EP of songs that fell squarely in the emo camp. If there's one style or genre or whatever of recent music that is both youthful and has been thoroughly flogged, it's emo. But Mander Salis transcends emo without even really pausing to look back (well, maybe "Gates of Dis" does a little bit). Even though the group used electronics as a distinguishing feature on its previous release, one listen to the highly melodic "Empires" will dispel any simple emo labels, and the breezy, post-Smiths sound of "On the Threshold of Eternity" evokes Travis as much as the Get Up Kids. In fact, singer Carl Marshall eschews most of emo's standard bag of vocalist tricks, opting to actually sing every note, and proves on this release to actually have a really great voice, if maybe sounding a bit much like '90s bands such as Dishwalla. He employs enough vocal hooks that his voice easily becomes the focal point of these songs, compared to the bland same ol', same ol' of their original emo sound .
Then there's the granddaddy trope of them all: originality. It's almost as if the discerning music critic has zero interest in entertainment or pleasure. Instead, every act must strive for complete and total revolution, some breakthrough in sound composition that makes us scramble for new adjectives and breaks us free from the standard game of artist comparisons. And The Snake The Cross The Crown... well, they hit it about dead center between standard and innovative. If this disc were only a continuation of the introduction of electronics to emo, it would be no big deal, even if it did serve to make the band more atmospheric. But Mander Salis is more than that, it's sort of a bridge of styles that slides between rock modes -- progressive, emo, indie, and space -- with a sort of slippery ease, even dropping into basic pop from time to time. You have to give some credit to a band that can start off with spacey electronics, shift into a straight rock mode, then let the song collapse, only to flip back to big, open-note prog chords, and then have the chutzpah to return to the original spacey intro, as they do on the gloriously sprawling epic "Echolalia". As a whole, the disc doesn't sound like any one band that comes immediately to mind.
On the other hand, you can't escape trying to pick out sounds that remind you of other artists just by listening to Mander Salis. There's the aforementioned Travis, which comes up primarily in Marshall's voice and in the pop undertones, although the acoustic-and-accordion "A Brief Intermission" sounds like any number of similar British or Brit-influenced indie pop bands. At times you picks up hints of disparate elements -- shades of Pink Floyd in the prog elements, a vocal hook that's a ghost of Soundgarden later becoming some kind of weird Dire Straights/Cars '80s thing, and there's a piano line lead-in during "The Laughing Man" that's driving me nuts because I can't place it despite being so familiar -- but this is true of any band, I suppose.
No, if there's one thing about Mander Salis that kills it, that absolutely closes the book on originality, it's the closing track, "Fields of Ius". If there's one thing that critics have had to do all too often -- and are getting fairly sick of -- it's having to compare a band to Radiohead. Sure, plenty of times it's in a bemoaning way, and sometimes it's even a crutch for a weak reviewer, but when it comes to "Fields of Ius", you have absolutely no choice but to invoke Radiohead. This is because the song replicates it all, right down to Thom Yorke's high-pitched keen, vocal tics, and the band's occasional use of symphonics layered into electronics. It's almost as if Angus Cooke, Mander Salis's producer (of the Ataris and Lagwagon fame), took it as a challenge to take this band and prove he could clone Nigel Godrich's formula. And the worst part is how well it works. "Fields of Ius" is a beautiful track and does a lot to bring the shifting tones of Mander Salis to an appropriate close. But, you also leave the disc with the feeling that The Snake The Cross The Crown is just going for a cheap knock-off of Radiohead, which does a disservice to the tracks that come before the closer.
So is Mander Salis worthy of critical praise or scorn? Well, it isn't endlessly repetitive and it shows an impressive display of range and tonal ability. It also portrays a band coming into its own and leaving the safe stomping grounds of its youth. If there is any doubt that an all-too-typical emo band can break out of that shell and become something greater, this disc proves it can be done. As for originality, well, two out of three ain't bad (of course, Meatloaf already said that). That the jumps in styles are manageably schizophrenic is okay, and The Snake The Cross The Crown's development from emo into prog-indie or whatever is laudable if not groundbreaking (they could have ditched the clunky name, too, but that's neither here nor there), but then there's that whole Radiohead thing.
You'll probably hear more about this band and this record. That's because, summed up, they're both pretty dang good. Mander Salis is fun, entertaining, and interesting. But the reason listening to it made me contemplate the peccadilloes of music critics is because I just couldn't get behind it 100% and love it as a gem. And that's probably because it's not a groundbreaking album sure to be drooled over by the press, and The Snake The Cross The Crown probably won't make the list for 2004's critical darlings, but really, we critics only care about our own needs.