Sunday, October 4, 2009

Islands- Vapours

I was surprised to see that Islands had a new album out, seeing as how it's only been a year and change since Arm's Way. Well, one of the original members has re-joined the band, so perhaps this--or the lukewarm reception of the aforementioned album--spurred such a quick turnaround. Whatever the case, here we are with Vapours, an album that is half "step in the right direction" and half "still not quite up to par."

The most noticeable difference about this album is the stripped down production and song lengths. Arm's Way was a bloated-but-interesting attempt at something different, failing more than it succeeded thanks to overstuffed sounds and less emphasis on songwriting and hooks. Vapours ostensibly reverses these qualities: no songs are longer than five minutes and the focus of the album is on stripped down, infectious keyboard heavy synth-pop/new wave. I say "ostensibly" because, as with Arm's Way, I find most of the songs forgettable and pleasant to a boring degree; not "infectious" at all. The Unicorns album and Islands's first, Return To The Sea, were bristling with unique ideas and hooks. If not always peppy and quirky, their songs were at least memorable. There's a sluggish flow and pacing to Vapours that undermines its synth-pop leanings, while the songwriting is, again, not up to par.

There's just something off about most of the tracks on Vapours, as if they start out well or have all the ingredients of great music, but they never quite come together. The ethereal, falsetto vocals of 'On Foreigner' are nice, but they aren't the focus of the track; what should be a razor sharp hook is instead diluted in a sea of plodding, overly verbose pop that comes off as deflated and boring. 'Tender Torture' starts out interestingly enough, with tough guitar chording and cheesy keyboards, but then it just keeps doing the same thing for three more minutes, leaving you waiting for some hook or pay off that never comes.

However, I do think Vapours is a better album than Arm's Way, and this is largely due to its strong finish. 'Heart Beat' delivers on the promise of Islands tackling synth-pop, with a vocoder'd vocal, almost reggae-esque loping guitar line, and insistent melodies. 'The Drums' doesn't have a true hook or chorus, but builds to a satisfying crescendo of sound that gives way to, what else, a drum heavy outro. Then there's the excellent 'EOL', which features the sharp lyric "a building fell on me" that, combined with the music, sounds like a mature ancestor to the younger, more whimsical death/injury obsessed Unicorns album. Vapours ends with 'Everything Is Under Control', all intense drums, echo-y guitars, spacey keyboards and dream-pop blissed out vocals. It actually is the sort of thing that Arm's Way tried to do and failed at, stuffing the production with sounds and atmospherics while placing less emphasis on songwriting. But here, it works, for whatever reason.

Rest assured, Vapours is a better overall album than Arm's Way, but it's still not quite up to the level of Return To The Sea. All personal misgivings about synth-pop aside, Vapours simply doesn't offer enough good, memorable songs to truly ensnare my heart. The last four songs, however, are pretty great, though this leaves me with an uneven impression every time I listen to it. If Arm's Way is a three stars out of five album that I wouldn't recommend, Vapours is at least worth a listen despite a similar score.

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