For those unfamiliar with one of Portland’s more prominent bands, it may be surprising that Talkdemonic has gone so far while forgoing the presumed necessity of employing a lead singer. Rather than relying on vocals as a counter-point to their musical meanderings, the band (Kevin O’Connor and a host of instruments) placed a spirited viola player (Lisa Molinaro) at center-stage, relying on the lyricism of the instrument to bring balance and warmth to the cool leanings of the band’s electronic heart. From the start, they captivated audiences, earning Willamette Week’s number one band designation in 2005 (with more than double the votes of the next contender, the none-too-shabby Viva Voce). Now, after a tour with Modest Mouse and most recently with the passionate Handsome Furs, the band is set to release its fourth full-length album next week with Ruins, confirming that the band’s novelty is also the source of its durability.
Within the first minutes of immersion into the newest album, one is struck with the sense that the band is aiming to forge a new path for themselves. Their approach has been dubbed “folktronic” in the past, a label highlighting the genre-bending tension in their work, and which more or less effectively depicts a sound encountered in the band’s last two albums. With Ruins, however, the band dumps the first half of the label–perhaps a wise move given that you can’t throw a stick in their home city right now without hitting someone in a folk-something band. This new effort is more fully in the realm of electronica, albeit a rootsy one, as in hearkening back to the roots of the form in Kraftwerk and Neu!.
The first song of the album, “Slumber Verses,” launches with foreboding in stark and spare synth sounds before ushering in the familiar somberness of the viola, and then grinds it all down in a shower of sparks and distortion. The dark effect continues through the title track, then changes course in “Revival,” showcasing a lighter tone, the viola lilting in a float from left speaker to right and back again. Where the album lingers in simplicity, with percussion from a basic drum kit, most often electronic undertones suggest something more complex and concerning. “Cascading” is aptly named, evoking a waterfall soundscape, while “Midnight Pass” is dark and brooding, electric guitar (or amped up viola?) adding a touch of menace. At the end, “Palace Walk” brings out the sum of the elements, weaving it all together for a lovely jaunt.
With all the depth of the album, I am once again struck by the sense that Talkdemonic has had to work harder than most to create their sound. Where many bands distract the listener from simpler instrumentation with their vocal tracks, Talkdemonic adds layer upon layer of synthesized and acoustic sounds to create richness. I can imagine that some might fault the album”s Autobahn-esque style; one could also point out that “City Sleep,” for instance, starts out more than a little like a fellow Portland band’s “Godless.” But unlike many of their peers, derivative is a most unlikely descriptor of Talkdemonic’s work. Their originality is fully evident in the interplay of their instrumentation. In their live show as well on the album, Molinaro’s expressive viola performance artfully plays off the MacBook-enhanced effects, adding a large dose of humanized tension and release. If there is one caution for the prospective buyer of this album, it is merely that the range of its textures are less likely to be apparent if one is relying on tinny computer speakers, as I did the first time through. This is an album to be played at a healthy volume through the stereo, or better yet on headphones. It will not disappoint.