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Last week, Denton’s Midlake released their fourth Studio album, entitled Antiphon, a week ahead of a concert appearance at the American Airlines Center this Friday in support of Pearl Jam. The new album’s title offers a clue into just how the band is thinking about itself amid these high water markers events. Antiphons are a liturgical device with Hebraic roots, normally reserved for the somber and echoic halls of churches. They are phrases used repetitiously and as bookends to congregational recitations. The purpose of an antiphon is meditative, an audible cue to draw the mind’s attention back to something. It is like an intonated anchor for persons who come unmoored. For Midlake, their new album is just that, a place to get their footing as a band in flux.
Locally, Midlake has been generating high expectations since they released Bamnan and Slivercork in 2004. The abstract Bamnan was followed in 2006 by The Trials of Van Occupanther, a classic rock inspired album that grooved just a little more and beeped just a little less. Depending on your tastes, either of those first two albums served as a benchmark for everything Midlake would record in the future.
With their third album, The Courage of Others, Midlake decided to double-down on the ‘70s rock and wandered where only The Moody Blues and Jethro Tull dared to roam. If you were generous, you called it ambitious Brit-folk. If you were more critical, The Courage of Others was so top-heavy with medieval gravitas, it threatened to trip over its own paper-mache Stonehenge. Either way, Midlake generally failed to live up to the enormous expectations audiences had set for them. As the band who was once hailed as great, not just good, they have been under the microscope ever since.
Off-camera, the band has experienced internal friction. Almost exactly a year ago, after some time in the studio, lead singer and founding member Tim Smith announced he was leaving the band. Details are scant, but Smith and the remaining members apparently engaged in a custody dispute over an album’s worth of recordings. The result was that Midlake abandoned virtually all of it and started again, absent their lead singer. In six months, they had written and recorded Antiphon.
Antiphon bears the marks of haste that produced it, though you would have to listen closely to hear them. It feels strange to discuss something like album continuity in this day and age, but artists are still releasing albums, so they are still evaluated in 10 to 12 song packages. This is especially true for Midlake, whose previous records hovered around cryptic, but consistent storylines. Antiphon is still very good from start to finish, but the song textures are not as lock-step as on Midlake’s past work. Still, the variance sounds natural, almost self-aware, and understandable given the circumstances of the album’s production.
The album cycles through introspection, frustration and satisfied joy at an honest pace. Sometimes the voice of Eric Pulido, who took over singing duties from Smith, sounds muffled under its own reluctance. At other times, it is set at the forefront and every word is clear. Similarly, the tracks on Antiphon swing wildly in tone. “The Old and the Young” has the album’s steadiest bass line and best hook. The muted drums chatter fiercely on “It’s going down” and the explosive instrumental “Vale,” the only track retained from the recording sessions preceding Smith’s departure, accelerates to a beautiful cacophony.
The album does retain the lushness for which Midlake have always been lauded, accomplished here with familiar vocal harmonies, organs and a dozen other tones, all neatly braided together. Antiphon makes good on the early-rock influence promise of its press release. Arrangements are complex and pick up where Houses of the Holy Led Zeppelin left off. “Corruption” takes a Floydian turn about two thirds in, morphing into a new song. Dénouements are drawn out and the band’s instrumental jams are given room to breathe. On Van Occupanther, critics were delighted to hear strains of Fleetwood Mac and Blue Öyster Cult. This album draws from a similar well, but adds late-stage Zep, Pink Floyd and incorporates these influences with less hesitation and more punch. On Antiphon, Midlake own, rather than borrow their influences.
The yardstick for Antiphon is the same as for the albums preceding it. Whether you thought it was derivative or not, Bamnan and Slivercork felt bold in 2004. And maybe the next two albums did not feel as revelatory, but they were both, to varying degrees, departures from previous work. Antiphon is not like this. In fact, for a band that lost its lead singer and a principal songwriter, Midlake sound much the same as they did in 2010. I personally hoped Antiphon would be riskier, that it would veer somewhere unexpected. But this release played it safe, relied on Midlake’s musical talents and detailed production work.
DFW fans want so much from Midlake, the local band with celebrity fans and impressive tour billings. We set the bar much higher for them and expect originality. But as a group of academically-trained musicians, the members of Midlake know that perceptions tend to be more original than music. If popular music sounds recycled to us, it must sound a hundred times so to people who can break it down to its atomic parts. Antiphon represents a new start for the band in practicality, but not musically.
The erudite Midlake could very well have meant to reference the person Antiphon with the album title, but it makes more sense as a nod to the worship device. The band is intentionally dragging their attention back to the task at hand: playing music well and trying to write timeless songs. Antiphon may not sound like a revelation. It sounds much more like where we were. But, sometimes, that’s where we should be.