Everyone needs a break at some point. But sad to say, the word ‘hiatus’ inevitably evokes negative connotations of failure. After all, if a given venture is successful – legions of customers, printing money by the bushel, and so forth – disruption is usually to be avoided at all costs. So when a musical act ceases and desists, one must ask what led the interested parties to part ways. Was it personal, professional, financial, or perhaps all three? Knowing that some hiatuses become permanent, one can’t help wondering whether reconciliation is even in the cards.
So, for shoegaze darlings Whimsical, why the lapse? For practical purposes, fans may have to live with the mystery; perhaps ‘recess’ or ‘sabbatical’ might be more appropriate, given the band’s chronology. Debut Setting Suns are Semi-Circles came out in 2000, but the act shut down in 2005 following an abortive sophomore effort. Then after a ten-year break, guitarist Neil Burkdoll and vocalist Krissy Vanderwoude reformed as a duo to release 2017’s contemplative Sleep to Dream, followed by the more glacial Bright Smiles & Broken Hearts in 2019. Though a far cry from late 1980s Winger, Bright Smiles was weighed down by an excess of hair-metal syncopation (boom-boom-PSH) and circular pacing – a sure death-knell for most genres and shoegaze in particular. Happy to report, then, that most of Melt is a vast improvement: energized, variegated, and incorporating enough inspired chord shifts to almost sustain an entire record. Almost.
For fans of a certain age, the title Melt brings back pleasant memories of New Zealand heroes Straitjacket Fits, circa 1990. Though not so spry or spirited as Andrew Brough’s lacing riffs (RIP Andrew!), Whimsical’s latest manages to strike a pleasing balance between droning Slowdive wash and a more kinetic Lush vitality – while at the same time remaining unafraid to slow things down in the thick of the action. The laconic guitar backdrop to “Take All of Me” is an excellent example, splitting roaring echoes and high surges with a picked-note interlude as gorgeous as it is addictive. “Just a Dream” then flips this formula on its head, lobbing an epic and unexpected Cast-style Britpop bridge into the song’s otherwise sedate surroundings. Although opener “Rewind” represents Melt at its most conventional, the bouncing riff is more than dynamic enough to shoulder Vanderwoude’s girlishly ethereal vocals.
Half of these tracks last five minutes or longer, which may be anathema to modern pop sensibilities, but in this case, they reward pre-internet attention spans rather handsomely. For many of us, five-minute songs can be a selling point in and of themselves. This loquacious approach is put to the test on side two, where three slower-paced tunes more reflective of Sleep to Dream close out the record. Two of them – “Searching” and “Feather” – harvest enough mileage from their winding up-and-down landscapes to succeed. However, while trip-hoppy “Quicksand” might be considered a reasonable attempt at something different, the song frankly doesn’t fly by comparison.
This is especially disappointing given the band’s press notes, which tout the electronica-lite of “Quicksand” as their proudest moment on Melt. It might prove a minority opinion, but the song is stale, lifeless, and seemingly interminable. When Spinal Tap frontman David St. Hubbins urged the crowd to “enjoy our new direction!”, the response was swift, justified, and merciless; frustrating perhaps, but that’s musical reality. Whimsical is not a trip-hop act, nor should they try to be.
Aside from that, Whimsical is indeed back together, and Melt is their finest effort since reuniting in 2016.