Monday, 29 April 2013

Young Galaxy - Ultramarine


Distinguishing in characteristic between what is classed as synth-pop, and what is electro-pop, is a lot easier than people might perceive. It was no straight-forward challenge I myself accomplished on first-go, but it was met nonetheless. I'm always up for either sound; whether it be the 80s new-age-influenced futurism of the former, or the colourful synth-stern analysis of the latter. At least with these two sub-genres' foretelling in the synthesized, the possibilities are (closer to being) infinite than others. Another sub-genre of pop perhaps not as coherently guided and thus better suited to a sense of artistry, is dream pop. Young Galaxy know too well about the wider parameters of possibility, as I'm sure a lot of other currently-trending, currently-abiding [noun]-pop bands usually are. But where I'm inclined to forget these sounds an hour down the line because of this very same sprawl into ambient possibility without reason, what gives Young Galaxy the edge is something very few 21st century bands manage to both rectify and reflect in their music: maturity. While not exactly the recurrent voice on what is a five-piece, three-vocalist act, Catherine McCandless can sleep easy knowing that not only is she one of my personal favourite female vocalists, but she can just as highly be credited as being one of the band's strongest reasons to be noticed and recognized. Up until now, the Vancouver outfit have experimented with a host of pop sub-genres, but it's here on Ultramarine that their true call as an act vying for synthesized momentum, fueled on by a maturity and a clear sense of human affliction, is finally found.

It's a no-brainer that you come to these self-made assumptions on opening track/lead single Pretty Boy. Straight away, the track begins on a high-mood string of looping drum beats and bobbling synths. And it's McCandless' vocals that come to truly define this song as perhaps the band's most well-crafted and valiantly-executed piece to date. 'When we were lost/We found each other' she begins, the repetition of electronic backing her, but doing nothing to take away from the rather forward-looking hopeful atmosphere the lyrics add here. There is of course a distinct field of romance; love for one another, focus on one another, needing one another. But it's never treated as if it's underloaded with self-importance or even reaching for something far more abstract or deep with meaning. Even when the music reaches for more ambition - sailing violin sweeps and percussion directing themselves right into the listeners' ears - the fact the synth hooks keep to their energetic but content rhythm shows the band know how to balance subject with subtext. Fall For You comes immediately afterwards and shows the same amount of experimental folly and fondness for their surroundings as they explored on previous albums. The sounds are more abrasive and open perhaps to tumbling apart, but it's this deliberate intention that works well to the music's tribal-like jungle lenience in percussion tone and synthesizer playfulness.

In this respect, Young Galaxy's returning to past ventures doesn't take away from the new, more-synthesized glaze of sound they're attempting to create on this record. New Summer tries its best to balance the two ideas and find a happy medium somewhere in the middle. There's still a youthful venture into the unknown with how the band treat synthesizers - some drizzling with tension, others care-free and open to the mystery of the atmosphere around them. McCandless herself again conveys an interesting rule of engagement with how she's able to marry the stern personality of her lyrics - here she seems to talk about the end of youth and the beginning of holidays with a sense of dread or despondent anxiousness - with the music's dizzying lead of polyrhythms. 'So meet me by the river/Let's go for a ride' she explains, 'With the window's down, and the stereo loud.' It's accomplished more-so by how in-tune and in-focus McCandless is with the flicker of synthesizers and the harmonics that come into play during the chorus sections. And because of how looking-forward this song comes off as, you can't help but feel the mind-set is one of optimism, but one that is perhaps hoping for more than what is deemed possible.

At first you might be taken a back - withdrawing perhaps with surprise and ultimately disdain - with how the album shifts emotionally with follower Fever. And yes, there's definitely a rather pompous and bulged expression with the track's laced usage of percussion hits and beats. And even if McCandless' lyrics don't necessarily steal the show ('I saw a doctor the first light of the morning/Said I got a fever') or direct most of the emotion and atmosphere of the music, her voice still gives her a sturdy, mature build to her femininity. So yes, the track does perhaps come off attempting ambition without scale; not helped, more-so, by the fact it's less-than-three-minute length makes it out more like a casual dispelling than a meaningful outpouring. But that's what I feel is one of Young Galaxy's strongest points as an outfit. On this record especially, it shows just how easy and adaptive the band are with working around new sounds; new ideas and new demographics in expressing themselves. Yes, the delivery doesn't exactly exceed or equal the previous efforts, but I'd like to think people would take variety that partially falters, over the same-old same-old that adds little to what follows. I guess what I'm trying to say, with undying conviction, is that the Vancouver five-piece are confident, and aren't reluctant to explore new avenues. Their identity, here clearly, can be applied and adapted to new musical contexts, and while not critically successive, still gives the album a varied scope of electronic sound.

Hard To Tell sees Galaxy's synthetic diverseness tackle what is a much slower, more past-flung rhetoric of 80s synth nestled with minimal guitar expression. There's still a clear idea for balance with the present, even if the guitar placement does show an inept want to make this sound rather more 1980's than 2010's. But rhythmically, it's encapsulating as it is withdrawn in that same context of looking into the past. And it's thanks to McCandless' sweeping envelop of vocals that help to keep an emotively rich and inviting vibe to the music. The lyrics don't necessarily offer anything as captivating as her vocal tones do - at times coming off as if hoping its masquerade as something far more emotive and passionate, has done enough to trick the listener...and failing - but the interesting relation between herself and the music's picking of 80s synth-pop does its job at carrying the track through. Admittedly, McCandless' lyricism doesn't meet the high-bar standards she sets right at the beginning of this album, and unfortunately, this does slightly tarnish her own individual placement on these tracks. Especially on tracks like What We Want, the listener quickly accustoms themselves to focusing more on the synthesizer beats and interesting texture of electronics than they do on the vocals. They don't hurt or add insult to the music, but given how much emphasis is placed on them, the lyrics start to feel below-par in comparison. But take note, and not for the first time more importantly, that this critique is on the lyrics and not on her vocals. Where at times her subject matter may blur into noise or lose its clarity, McCandless' voice still holds true and comes off brilliantly abrasive and full of confidence and assurance with how to work with the music, as opposed to standing against it.

Out The Gate Backwards in all its quirky piano playing and youthfully folly energy, shows McCandless isn't trying to overly dominate or take control of the piece. Even if the music does offer some ingenious foreplay amid its piano and funk-like drum beats, Galaxy's lead vocalist both declines to conform to the track's tonal lenience, while at the same time aids it with her own passionate breadth of echoey, transient vocals. In Fire perfectly replicates the kind of futuristic ambition I've come to expect from 80s Depeche Mode tracks, and to add to that, even something along the lines of Kraftwerk begins to seep through on this track as well. The music plays less like 21st century taking reference from the past, and more like the past painting a fairly accurate brave-and-daring visage of the near-future. And all the while, McCandless' vocals add an even lavish depth of mystery and curiosity with her polytonal harmonizing and her switch from clearly visible to discreetly swimming amid the music's futuristic sprawl of cool and warming synths alike. Sleepwalk With Me ends the record perhaps with more ambition in its delivery than necessarily demesne content. The music translates as neither in a chronological stance, nor borrowing from one to the other. The way the ambivalent synths and weightless loft of electronics convey themselves suggests a more spacious and in-between phase than previous. And if the song's title is anything to go by, it definitely conveys the idea of sleep and dreaming - if perhaps with someone other than yourself - in a fittingly romanticized, and hopeful manner.

Feelings of romance and personal relations do perhaps stand now as one of the few underpinning tropes about these sub-fields of pop. Young Galaxy don't necessarily object to falling back on this - at times relishing the opportunity to talk emotively and of its scale, without necessarily making sure the lyrics match the music's frivolous exploration. But what makes Ultramarine such an enjoyable listener is the fact that the Canadian five-piece, at the same time, don't ignore the fact that change is a pleasant form of escapism. It may have been a slight unseen mistake to put their finest track (to date) literally at the beginning - ultimately giving everything that follows it something of an unfair target to meet - but the offerings that follow certainly underpin both Young Galaxy's confidence and understanding of the sub-genre's (synth, electro and dream alike) strength in exploring the vast stretch of possibility before them. But more to that, it's McCandless' vocal lead (the first album she's been given it start-to-finish) that fuels the music into being this fruitfully wider scope of expansion. Ultimately then, Ultramarine - despite its lyrical hiccups and occasional tangent shifts from one track to the next - is one of the better sounding synthesizer pop albums of the year. The more you listen to it, the more you realize: even the bad spots; the slight hiccups, the tiny areas requiring improvement can, strangely, be taken in a positive light. Variance, change, confidence, ambition. Such things can never been seen negatively. And here, Young Galaxy relish the challenge, and more importantly, deliver a sound showcasing them as both intrigued musicians, and knowledgeable ones at that.
~Jordan

7.9