Space is a wonderful thing to have on an album. It makes music more fluid, keeping the pace interesting. I cannot tell you how many albums I would have enjoyed if only they paused a moment from their unrelenting onslaughts; in many cases, a little space can go a long way. Many albums like that have crossed my path, and yet, I have heard ambient albums that feel like glorious translucent space that drifts through my speakers to give me a floating feeling, although it is clear I am listening to something substantive.
But it should always be noted that space is what it is: Nothing. And too much of nothing tends to swallow something, and good albums can be diluted because they yield too much of their running time to it. The newest albums by The Antlers, Malachai and Snowman all remind me of what can happen when space suppresses potential as opposed to enlivening it. Their approaches are different, but all are ultimately albums that feel incomplete because space is too involved a component of them.
Snowman broke up before the release of their second album, ∆bsence, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to their final project. Not to say that an album like this has to convey the tension I’m sure was building within the group during its making (After all, the final releases of groups like Fang Island and Yellow Swans gave hardly an indication of intra-group turmoil), but, there’s absolutely no tension to be found on the album, at all. What you mostly find are vague textures of keyboards, percussion and guitars. Falsettos abound through mountains of reverb with no notable distinctiveness. The album goes on like this and nothing happens time and time again. When the closing title track “explodes” with some unexpected distortion, it just feels like throwing a stone into an empty pool; it’s a loud “clank” and that’s it. No ripple, no nothing.
Malachai have a slight upper hand in that they at least observe some personality on their sophomore LP, Return to the Ugly Side. The album’s fidelity makes the music akin to lo-fi AM radio pop but with an erudite British edge, lead singer Gee Ealey’s nasally cockney sounding like what would happen if Oliver Twist joined a post-punk band in adulthood. However, while “Monster” features some bludgeoning percussion and “Mid Antarctica (Wearin’ Sandals)” has some gruff guitar riffage, Return to the Ugly Side also succumbs to the space of anonymity. Much of the album sounds like Britpop retread, and Malachai don’t do a very good job of convincing you otherwise. Return, ultimately, sounds like a series of Gnarls Barkley outtakes. Their vague 60’s aesthetic is held up defectively by a stale personality. Like Snowman’s “Absence”, “HyberNation” attempts to surprise the listener with some breakbeats, and, while, admittedly, it comes out of nowhere, it hardly saves Return from its mediocrity. It’s hard to see the album being enjoyed as anything but background music.
Coming to prominence with their 2009 debut, Hospice, The Antlers drew ears with plodding melodies and singer Pat Silberman’s devastating tales of loss and dejection. If you have read anything about the group’s Hospice follow-up, Burst Apart, it’s that, to an extent, it’s more of the same. I would agree with this sentiment; the group’s instrumentation remains tempered and Silberman’s falsettos remain nimble and affecting. In fact, Silberman does a fantastic job on Burst Apart. Many artists strive for delicacy, but he goes all-out, descending upon tracks like “No Windows” to give them a beautiful, sinister bent. It’s shame, then, that, despite the vocal acrobatics Silberman observes on Burst Apart, so little happens on the album. “No Windows” could be transformative if its expanse of organs and mechanized percussion weren’t so repetitive. Songs like “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” and “I Don’t Want Love” should be distressing admissions of sexual frustration, but their arrangements are shy, almost cowardly. Even as Silberman gives his best lyrical performance in the first verse of “Putting the Dog to Sleep”, its impact is dulled by the sheer modesty with which the group accompanies it. The track embodies the mission statement of Burst Apart: A great album by a group with a talented singer marred by the low ambition of its more than competent instrumentalists.