Album | Villagers – {Awayland}


If 2012 was a ‘meh’ year of some good British records and nice debuts by a handful of promising artists, 2013 will be forced to do better, not only because there’s no massive international event to distract us (yes Olympics, I’m talking about you), but because our overseas reputation for music is currently being led by One Direction and The Wanted.

Thank goodness then for Conor O’Brien and the return of Villagers, the Irish band Mercury nominated for their outstanding, pared back debut, Becoming A Jackal. To me, this was a rare record in that I wanted to listen to the whole album all at once, resisting my bad habit of popping my iPod on shuffle and skipping every other song on it. The only downside to the record, in my eyes and ears, was that we were kept waiting so long for the next one.

Happily for others who were impatiently waiting to see if Villages would overcome the ‘difficult second album syndrome’, it appears as if Villages have not only overcome this obstacle, they have leapt over it as if it were no bigger than a metaphorical ant to a giant, leaving behind it a bar so high that others releasing in the coming year should go back, think about what they’ve done and do everything they can to match it in ambition and brilliance. Then 2013 would truly be a vintage year.

If you want to get an idea of what has been built upon in {Awayland}, think back to the swooping strings and walls of sound experimented with in Becoming A Jackal’s opener, ‘I Saw the Dead’. This latest release takes this use of orchestration and expands it to vast proportions, propelling you sweetly throughout most of the record’s track listing. On the other hand, occasionally subtle hints of electronic programming keep you grounded – none more so than on the single ‘Waves’, where a dissonant, mid-pitched tone persistently sounds through the urgent verse, resolving comfortably into the more uplifting tonality of the chorus. It is devices like these that challenge you more as you repeatedly listen; at first you marvel at the melodies and lyrics, but when you listen deeper and penetrate the layers, there’s so much more to enjoy.

For those who yearn for a follow-up to the gentler tracks of Villagers’ past, the album’s first song, ‘My Lifehouse’, will satisfy, before the record almost brutally ceases to cradle you and drops you right into the thick of the action with ‘Earthly Pleasures’, a faintly menacing number about a man who has an ephiphany whilst sat on the toilet, before seemingly regressing to a previous life. (O’Brien does not seem to have lost his passion to reference the past.) The LP calms as it continues, but does not lose its ability to hold your attention right up until final number, ‘Rhythm Composer’, which sweeps you along and neatly personifies your demons as a dog (‘But it’s your demon, you can tell it to sit’) and draws the album to a close with gentle synthy beeps and the faint squealing of what could quite possibly be a pig.

Although O’Brien has revealed that he spent time structuring the latest songs around electronic influences, he stripped them back before release (but thankfully has not removed them entirely). It’s a fusion you might not expect to work against large string section, but actually compliments and compels – what would this sound like live for example? (Having seen Bright Eyes bring his horn section and synths to the Royal Albert Hall less than two years ago, I can now imagine them sharing a bill together in that same venue, rather than say, the overused 02.) The production may be bigger – although no less clean – than on their debut, but on listening to it, I feel the need to hear it performed beyond the studio to truly decide on the kind of impact the songs can have. As an album however, it’s going to be difficult for 2013 to compete.

Words: Frankie Ward

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