Tuesday, 22 May 2012

North Atlantic Oscillation - Fog Electric


If you're like me and were not as fussed to trawl through the catalogue of recent upcoming electro-rock bands when 2010 rolled on through, it's a high probability then that North Atlantic Oscillation - a two-man (turning four-man on live sets) scottish band who are to 'rock' music as most politicians are to the concept of honesty - will mean virtually nothing both in the name-check and sound-check alike. 'Grappling Hooks' may have doddled with synths and opened up the gallows of contemporary british band sounds, but the end result was inevitably doomed to remain affixed to the dingy booze-soaked, sticky-floored concert halls most new bands find themselves limited to. Two years on and the band return with, on the outside, more of the same in the shape of 'Fog Electric'. I use 'outside' to refer to the majority who no doubt will give this a try just so it's one more on the albums listened to list we're all no doubt making close notes of. But it's when you finally nestle into this record, that you find that the concept of 'more of the same' - and thus, more of the same old mediocrity - is as far from the truth as you can get.

Straight from the off, Oscillation have ditched the tradition of studio-littered guitars and drum kits for a sound that here, is much more open and, in some cases, cosmic in its reach. Gone are the unintentional scarcity of being confined or clogged up, and instead, with opener 'Soft Coda' we have a gracious drum sandwiched between a glacier-like heightening of synths and this dreamy flicker of vocals provided to us by vocalist and lead-guitarrist Sam Healy. 'Chiarlity' likewise continues Healy's uplifting, almost charming care-free venture of stratospheric proportions as we're wrapped in an uncanny mixture of monotonous synthesizers, colorful pipe instruments and this delightful symphonic deliverance that chops and changes at erratic phases in the track. And yet, the pacing and the stark contrasting as these sounds chop and change, isn't at all off-putting or distracting. Rather, they all feel equally ambitious and relatable to one another, as if all part of the same component but merely broken up; spaced out and given room to breathe. If this is indeed the case, it's an admirably clever technique to lead us into the finale that fills us with such uplifting electric guitars and shattering drum beats, by the end it almost feels too dreamy to be conscious.

Even when the progression - which even here, can be looked at as more of a build-up than anything else - is at a minimum and isn't entirely at the centre of proceedings, the execution actually works just as well, if not better when approaching the later stages of these compositions. 'Mirador' is the track that breaches the limitations of earth's orbit and takes things directly into the more cosmic surroundings. Lead by a simple shuddering of synths, Healy's harmonic of heavenly ascent and head-high transgression paves the way for a tidal wash of electronic rock that doesn't at all drown out all the tiny sparkles of tone and texture that come poking from out of the glowing of sound being emitted. The idea of second-half executions in song composition isn't in any way a new thing. In the past, I'm often critical of the way some artists and bands see this merely as a do-less - and in some extremes, lazy - way of extending a track's length without adding any contributing elements to their tracks. Here though, Oscillation seem to be hoping - as well as willing - to put in the extra effort to make their tracks shine (rather than sparkle) from out of their linear start-to-finish spectrum. There's a feeling here that there is indeed a sense, a need, for discovery and venturing into a World that isn't bound by geography or compass points. The electronics feel more spacious and daring, while the traditional instrumentation come across more adventurous and bold.

'Interval' despite the connotations to its name, does a tremendous job in raising this snowcap of ambient-like electronics into full view - Healy's voice once more finding itself sailing across this spacious peak of eerie inorganic wonder, like something more in line with a Stars Of The Lid composition. The track soon gets the backbone via a sensibly muttered drum beat to drive the vocals forward rather than merely floating in this void of droned and directionless sound. More and more I find that my attention is being pulled more and more in the direction of the vocals, which is more surprising considering how lack-luster I, and a few others, may have perceived it on their debut. To refer to more contemporary acts within a similar field, it reminds me of the same promising elevation Jonas Bjerre of Mew, often shows.

It's tracks like 'The Receiver' that demonstrate the band's ability to minimize their palette into more gracious amounts of instrumentation. Healy drifts from a starting point of drifting between the airwaves alongside a charming flutter of piano keys, and then soon echoes through the corridors of wailing guitars that amass once more at the final hurdles. Even the decision of using only the piano or only having the vocals in certain areas, actually works remarkably well considering how grand a scale the album has been in previous tracks.

The closer '(Theory Of Tides)', is the band's most daring attempt at a spacious collage of lightly-treading notation and composite sounds, all rolled together in a track that slowly warms up and unravels itself as something far more escaping than the daring heights of mountainous space exploration of previous. In-between this, there are bird-like chirping, gentle murmurs of water-like streaming and this definite aesthetic atmosphere that crumbles away against the backdrop. In one sense, it can be seen as a stand-alone effort in exploring an increased awareness in musical geography, but in other ways, it only illustrates the band's pleasantly-commited attempt to mix the tradition of rock with a more comforting apparel of Boards of Canada-like warmth.

Two years can be either a short or long period of time depending on how vast your length of interest lies in today's music. Not to mention that this is their second album, the only signs beaming across regarding Oscillation's new record, were dire and grim to say the least. It's a shock to the system that you find a band that not only break the tradition of second-album-syndrome, but also surprise you to such an extent, it changes your perception on where the band lies on your interest meter. 'Fog Electric' has done exactly this, and in such a stunning fashion, it does indeed feel surreal that such a thing was pulled off by a band that didn't necessarily feel 'special' or 'important' on debut. Now though, the tide has turned and the opposite is true. Whether intentional or not, North Atlantic Oscillation have brought us from out of this shell of safe - even if a tad experimental and trying in places - british rock and out onto the open plains of wide-angle lens, emotive, symphonic, electronic rock. It's only when you find yourself commenting more on the band's delicacies - more than the fact that, yes, they have vastly improved from previous - you know this stands more as a mark of startling admiration than just a record in its own right. And here, that's exactly the case.
~Jordan

8.3

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