Robert Katz, Staff Writer
Paralytic Stalks, psychedelic progressive rock group of Montreal’s newest LP, is their most radical departure from whatever their “norm” actually is. Abandoning their recent electronic motif for a more melodically-driven, grandiose style rife with woodwinds, strings and brass, it’s easy to notice of Montreal’s grasp for something more meaningful and emotional, especially behind the desperate screams and tense calmness that singer and songwriter Kevin Barnes allows the album to bathe in. The end result, unsurprisingly, is an album that is totally inaccessible and completely radio-unfriendly, but doesn’t seem very bothered.
of Montreal certainly enjoys placing emphasis on the “progressive” in their genre. Barnes described himself as wanting “to keep moving forward.” Originally a Sgt. Pepper-esque indie pop group recording concept albums about the adventures of fictional characters, their latter releases have taken a much darker turn, basing much of their lyrical material on Barnes’s personal life and thoughts. All the while, however, of Montreal has managed to overlay nearly every song with a deceptively upbeat, danceable melody that has only added to their mercurial charm.
Lyrically, Paralytic Stalks is, in a word, “troubled.” Barnes creates a confessional filled with sometimes frustrated, sometimes self-loathing and sometimes accusatory addresses that often feel more like therapy than the product of a band’s recording session. At times, the uncomfortable nature of Barnes’s navel-gazing works very well dynamically with the tones of the instrumentals, such as in the funk-flavored Dour Percentage (which just so happens to be about being unable to tolerate a friend), as he belts out his gripes in a falsetto. At other times, Barnes’s cold rambling can come off as simply flat rather than chilling, as in the opener to Gelid Ascent as he groans in a heavily computerized voice. However, there’s something to Paralytic’s constantly spiteful tone that lends every phrase a bit more weight, especially whenever the melody dims and Barnes takes center stage, cooly confessing this-or-that to whomever he’s thinking of, such as the ending of Dour Percentage: “I don’t resent you,” he breathes, “but I can’t settle the debt of our serrated history and blows I haven’t got over yet.”
Part of what makes Paralytic feel so unsettling and tense is the mixture of technology and nature that composes the instrumentals. Flutes and piano permeate many of the tracks, adding a lightness that feels somewhat unwarranted given the subject material, yet give the record a little more texture and identity. Alongside the orchestral elements is the omnipresence of Barnes’s musical workstation, adding a synthetic, heavier sound that helps make the album feel like an ungodly audio chimera of reverberating pitches and dance beats. However, every song plays differently on this mix of sounds, be it in Ye, Renew the Plaintiff, with its guitar solo (the only one on the album), the strings of We Will Commit Wolf Murder or Authentic Pyrrhic Remission’s pounding bass.
The record struggles, as it seemed destined to, with self-restraint. Barnes’s growing problem with creative control comes to the forefront of the album in Exorcismic Breeding Knife, a track that isn’t so much a song as it is a nightmare. Erratic strings, random instrumental samplings, lengthy vocal pitches and the Barnes’s occasional muttering come together to form a seven-minute piece that wants to be artistic and expressive, but comes across simply as filler and a waste of space. That same feeling is felt later in the final track, Authentic Pyrrhic Remission (which clocks in at 13:15), wherein, through the middle, there are six uninterrupted minutes of screeching that separated the album’s climax and its rather gorgeous piano ballad ending. The album sometimes feels as though it’s actually attempting to be non-commercial, rather than just allowing its own natural style to polarize whom it may.
Paralytic Stalks is a bit difficult to judge critically, as at times it doesn’t appear to have any interest in being entertaining and at other times it can be downright catchy. As an emotional, more artistic “experience,” it falls egregiously flat at specific points to the extent that they become almost entirely indecipherable and empty. As entertainment, however, those points stick out as even stronger deterrents. The surrounding work makes the package somewhat worth it simply for its wonderful complexity and variety. Unfortunately, Barnes doesn’t have the massive amount of musical genius required to switch creative gears so abruptly without showing some tiredness, as he’s been attempting for the past half-decade. of Montreal needs to take a break and focus on perfecting their art before they tackle another. That would be real progress.