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11 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Second poor album in a row for once-great psych rockers, 26 Sep 2008
This review is from: Snowflake Midnight (Audio CD)
`Snowflake Midnight` is a departure from previous Mercury Rev records in that it is almost entirely dominated by electronics and glacial synths. A digital wonderland as sonically rich as Flaming Lips' `Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots`, Mercury Rev's latest sees them trying to graft their faux-naive nature imagery onto dazzling artificial production. Shifting and morphing with the dynamism of a symphony, Dave Fridmann's Bladerunner soundscapes are so grand they often dwarf the songs. If, like me, in `glacial' you read `emotionally chilly' this is not the record for you. No-one can suggest that Snowflake Midnight is understated; others will suggest that they have severely over-egged the pudding.

Like `Secret Migration`, Snowflake is guilty of such a glassy, glossy sheen that the individual elements are hard to pin down. Technically dazzling but somehow remote, it soars up and down, sucking the listener in and spitting them out, and at the end you're not quite sure where you've been or why. While the album is at times discordant and cacophonous, like their previous album the slick polish suggests a more commercial direction. Donahue doesn't sound nearly as subversive, or unsettlingly narcotic, as on earlier releases, but the wide-eyed fairytale conceit remains.

`Snowflake Midnight' begins with a strong trio of tracks which retain an infectious pop sensibility despite some rather overloaded production. `Snowflake in a Hot World' is typical Mercury Rev whimsy: its allegorical conceit that no two snowflakes, like humans, are alike, frankly a little trite: "Don't let them get to you, don't let them tell you you're all the same". Beginning with shimmering electronics and stabs of synthesized bass, it builds into a veritable maelstrom of digital effects. At first the electronic detailing - the pro-tooled clicks, whirls and whooshes - create a meaningful fission with Jonathan Donahue's rather facile nature imagery in ways that it fails to do later in the album. The fluttering `Butterfly Wings', for instance, is a blissful meld of the natural and the artificial. But as much as I want to share Donahue's enthusiasm for this natural imagery I mostly find his posturing too contrived and a touch prosaic, despite the hyper-vivid sonic conceit of the music. By contrast, the exhilarating neo-rave of `Senses On Fire' recalls Deserter's Songs` `Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp' - all Chemical Brothers bombast and rushes of sonic bedlam.

After track three the album grows sillier as it grows in scale and ambition, becoming more portentous with each passing track. I feel that Mercury Rev have rather lost their lightness of touch at a time when contemporaries such as Radiohead have found theirs. `People Are So Unpredictable', with its Wizard of Oz refrain "There's No Place Like Home", is particularly guilty of overdramatic posturing, with enormous anti-climaxes and lost-at-sea `quiet bits' that seem better suited to incidental music. I could imagine the thunderous drums and doom-mongering choirs soundtracking some Oz derivative like `Labyrinth' - think David Bowie's big-haired glam-rocking baddie trying to be really scary to Jennifer Connolley. While such conceptual silliness is impossible to take seriously, `October Sunshine' is a couple of minutes of very serviceable Vangelis-esque ambience.

`Runaway Raindrop' starts with some `Felt Mountain' type atmospherics before being interrupted by spectacularly ugly acid-house basslines and then collapsing into a spoken-word near rap by Donahue. "A Wolf Never Waits," Donahue warns in a song that is equal parts The Fifth Element and Underworld. Sometimes you get the feeling Donahue and Fridmann have been given license to indulge their worst individual excesses unchecked and are not really singing from the same songsheet: Donahue with his twee, over-earnest lyrical concerns, and Fridmann with his "this one goes to 11' ratcheting up of the special effects. `Dream Of A Young Girl as A Flower' is also suspect, frequently disintegrating into meaningful pauses but entirely lacking the very gravitas it rather desperately strives for. However, its hyper-active spasms of electronic noise and quasi-drum and bass freak outs are interrupted by a lovely stately piano moment with Donahue intoning "You're the one everyone leans on, you're the one who can't lose control". This brief moment of lucidity is so suddenly, unexpectedly moving that you wonder what a less-is-more approach to `Snowflake Midnight' could have yielded.

For all the emoting and thundering earnestness, Snowflake is sometimes enveloping, sometimes an impenetratable mess. It is like 100th Window-era Massive Attack remixed by Sigur Ros, Xiu Xiu and Trent Reznor. `Far out' at times, yes, but too far out for anyone to care. Replete with squalls of big angry synths howling and raging as if scoring some unseen drama, the result is often opque: more style than substance. There are some lovely moments, granted, but like a CGI-saturated movie it suggests a band hiding a paucity of ideas with an arsenal of special effects. While `A squirrel and I' - electronic chamber pop bedecked with synthesised sax squeals - is much better than any song with that title and those lyrics deserves to be, it is almost impossible to take seriously. If Flaming Lips could get away with writing songs about Japanese girls fighting giant pink robots then `Snowflake Midnight' must be missing some key ingredients. Too sonically busy, but never dull, Snowflake's ultimate drawback is that it seems like a pose, an affectation, and thus emotionally distant and rather silly.
First published at The Line of Best Fit
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 4 Oct 2008 11:46:57 BDT
".....with its Alice In Wonderland refrain of "There's No Place Like Home"..." Dorothy, not Alice. Oz not Wonderland.

In reply to an earlier post on 4 Oct 2008 14:14:51 BDT
Demob Happy says:
ahem ... thanks for that ! I've taken the liberty of changing the review !

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Oct 2008 18:43:16 BDT
He's also singing "There's no bliss like home"...

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Oct 2008 10:45:41 BDT
Last edited by the author on 16 Oct 2008 17:45:33 BDT
Demob Happy says:
Ok, but the Wizard of Oz conceit is still apparent, I reckon...

In reply to an earlier post on 18 Oct 2008 23:40:08 BDT
"If Flaming Lips could get away with writing songs about Japanese girls fighting giant pink robots then `Snowflake Midnight' must be missing some key ingredients."

Do you lack the ability to look for deeper meaning? Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is about a battle with cancer. Yoshimi was a fan/friend of theirs who succumbed to the terrible condition, and their recasting of her battle as a fantastic, multicoloured fight with giant pink robots is an attempt to cope with their grief. Not to make light of it, but to make the horrible deterioration of a person dear to them easier to deal with. The surreal, the fantastic, the whimsical...so many people miss the point entirely by scoffing and sneering, refusing to accept that allegory and metaphor can say something a lot more touching and devastating than can any piece of social realism.

You're obviously a fan of Mercury Rev, and you've obviously given it a lot of time. However, to use words like "silly", "conceit" and to say things like "much better than any song with that title and those lyrics deserves to be" to me suggests that you're missing the point completely. If such things grate on you, then stick to the gritty boring social realism of Glasvegas, The Arctic Monkeys or whatever. Your review is worded as such that you seem to feel that anybody who does find meaning and beauty in this music is unworthy, immature and, well, wrong. Fix it.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Oct 2008 14:44:08 BDT
Last edited by the author on 20 Oct 2008 21:05:27 BDT
Demob Happy says:
Elliot - I think you've rather misunderstood the review. I'm fully aware, thank you, that Yoshimi is allegorical - it is probably my favourite album of the last ten years. You can check out my review on this site. 'Snowflake Midnight' is probably allegorical too. I am not disputing this. What I am saying is that on Yoshimi The Flaming Lips made the concept work with wit, imagination, great songs, clever production etc. - all of which are largely lacking in Snowflake. It is not the allegory that makes Yoshimi a great album, it's the music - the 'deeper meaning', as you put it, can only be as profound as the music which delivers it. I love music to be abstract, impressionistic, experimental - the aim of my review was not to dismiss it for being these things, but to try and describe why the album fails to engage me.

I'm sorry if you felt personally patronised by the review but if you re-read it you may see that I had some positive things to say too but that on balance I felt the negatives outweighed them. If you feel strongly about the quality of the album you are free, of course, to publish your own review, and let the customers decide for themselves. The idea that I am suggesting that anyone who finds "meaning and beauty in this music is unworthy, immature and, well, wrong" is bizarre - is this the first negative review of an album you have ever read?? What is the point of music criticism if it can't say when something is overblown and pretentious?

Without meaning to insult you, I should also point out that the noun 'conceit' is not necessarily pejorative but can also mean 'an elaborate metaphor or artist effect'.
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