Photo: Visionist & Peter De Potter / Courtesy of Mute Records

Visionist’s ‘A Call to Arms’ Is Surprisingly Peaceful

Visionist’s A Call to Arms is a success. Louis Carnell has dialed down on the noise and written the most straightforward, emotionally-charged work of his career.

A Call to Arms
Visionist
Mute Records
5 March 2021

The music of Visionist, aka Louis Carnell, is not exactly easy listening. Carnell’s first full-length album, Safe, was a concept album built to mimic a panic attack’s progression and comedown. That’s an apt metaphor for his music as a whole; brutal onslaughts of noise and feedback often follow moments of serenity. You never know when the next onslaught is coming, making for a suspenseful listen. One moment you’re in an ambient wilderness of glistening pads and mournful acapella vocals, and the next, you’re getting hammered with a sonic barrage of fractured synths, chipmunked voices, and glitched-out grime.

Naturally, you may have some trepidation in approaching A Call to Arms, Carnell’s third LP, and his first for Mute Records. If that’s the case, you can breathe a small sigh of relief. A Call to Arms is every bit as powerful as his last two records, Safe and Value, but it is—at least by his standards—relatively peaceful. It isn’t tame, but it’s less cluttered and claustrophobic than its predecessors. There are still the usual sonic barrages of noise, but they are interspersed more sparsely and meaningfully.

A Call to Arms is also Visionist’s warmest record. Here, for the first time, Carnell really sings. Beforehand, we got mere shards of his voice, mostly in samples chipmunked and vocoded beyond recognition. But on this LP, Visionist adds a human touch to all the surrounding noise and feedback with more conventional vocals. That is evident from the first track, “By Design”. Although it begins in typical Visionist icy ambience, Carnell’s vocals are low, throaty, and meditative, adding a warm contrast to the intro’s heavy bass and grating, bowed guitars.

On the next song, “Form”, Visionist gets fancy, showcasing a gorgeous falsetto amidst fuzzy synths and wordless, operatic vocals from Lisa E. Harris. There is, indeed, an operatic quality to most of the vocals throughout A Call to Arms. This tendency reaches its zenith on “A Born New”, where Carnell and Harris sing in a deep, wordless croon, their voices quivering and ululating over each other. It’s by far the most soothing moment in Carnell’s discography, calling to mind the choral compositions of another modern vocal wizard, Julianna Barwick.

Hearing Carnell sing throughout the album, it’s a wonder that he hasn’t done so before. His vocals are not an appendage to the music—they are its driving force. And his range is something to marvel at, as his vocals range from baritone and brooding to soaring and high-pitched. The lyrics, too, are a nice addition to his sonic oeuvre, often painting dark, naturalistic images rich in symbolism and cryptic in meaning. On “The Fold”, Carnell sings: “forgotten, doused in rain / a shadow of oneself, died in vain / ‘cause I can’t give no more”, pleading surrender to the tune of trickly piano and faint chimes. At first, the lyrics convey hopelessness, but the mood changes when guest singer Haley Fohr (of Circuit des Yeux) enters the fray. “Hold the hope inside,” she repeatedly intones as if to remind Carnell to keep his head up. Moments like this are a welcome respite from Visionist’s past work, which occasionally felt cold and inhuman in its glitchy, fractured sound design.

That’s not to say that A Call to Arms is all warmth and tenderness, however. “Nearly God” is as distorted as they come, with its industrial might and steely, angular synths. The first half of the song is driven by a pounding, hoof-like groove. Then it gives way to a passage of swirling ambience and Lisa E. Harris’s operatic vocals. The experiment’s runtime is a bit long—the song feels like it’s effectively over halfway through—but it’s one of the more memorable moments from A Call to Arms, if only because of how abrasive and unforgiving it is.

There are a couple of forgettable tracks toward the back end of the album, such as the overly repetitive noise-experiment, “Lie Digging”, or the lackluster ambient outro, “Cast”, which feels like it’s trying too hard to be an outro instead of a memorable song. All in all, though, it’s fair to call Visionist’s latest work a success. Carnell has dialed down on the noise and written the most straightforward, emotionally-charged work of his career. At its best, A Call to Arms is a moving portrait of an artist who has finally unleashed all his gifts, who isn’t afraid to come out from behind all the noise and sing.

RATING 7 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.
SUBMIT SUBMIT