The tongue-in-cheek, often insufferable ‘80s new wave revival is still running its course, with artists using an ironic embrace—tentative hetero-man-hugs with crotches spaced as far apart as physically possible—to create distance from their sources. What would be refreshing would be to hear some more earnest ‘80s-influenced renderings that tap into a distinct European romantic style, similar to late Roxy Music, late Talk Talk, David Sylvian and The Blue Nile. Destroyer did this well on last year’s Kaputt, and now there’s the new album Piramida from the Danish group Efterklang. I am absolutely not saying that Efterklang is an ‘80s rip-off, but its latest album Piramida evokes the same mood as those aforementioned acts, with a lush melding of organic and synthetic sounds that serves as the perfect autumn record.
The creation of Piramida was centered on the band’s expedition to the abandoned Russian town Piramida, located near the North Pole, where the members stayed for nine days, collecting sounds and absorbing the eerie atmosphere of the decrepit settlement, and the album itself is a meditation on human cycles of rise and decay, on different levels. The instrumentation is diverse, with conventional brass and string instruments and also improvised soundmakers; for example, the group generated marimba-like sounds by hitting spikes found protruding from concrete slabs and oil tanks.
The opener “Hollow Mountain” sets the album’s tone, with Casper Clausen’s placid, warmhearted vocals along with the use of a 60-piece girls choir, juxtaposed with busy, kinetic drumming that manages to not be too jarring. “Sedna” is similarly melancholic, with a reserved and reverent feeling imbued in waves and cascades of notes, with a few infrequent distorted bits threatening from afar; things are a little brighter on “The Ghost” with a compelling pull, using intersecting brass tones. Albums like Piramida are rarely made nowadays, being ambitious, grand, gorgeous, and entirely successful in capturing a calming, mysterious mood with a touch of unease.
The Chicago outfit Mazes is like a weirder, unpredictable version of its sibling band The 1900s, both of which feature front man Edward Anderson and singer and keyboard player Caroline Donovan and demonstrate a knack for serving up memorable pop hooks and boy/girl vocalizing. Anderson has a soft, high voice, reminiscent at times of either Kevin Barnes (of Montreal) or Robert Schneider (The Apples in Stereo), and Donovan’s similarly supple vocal style blends with Anderson’s nicely. Employing co-conspirators Charles d’Autremont and the rhythm section of bassist Tom Smith and drummer Pat Cavanaugh, the second proper Mazes album, Mazes Blazes, darts from song to song with concentrated bursts; there are several Guided-By-Voices-style quick hits, like the 51-second-long fuzz rock of “Live Happy Die Heavy” or the offbeat 44-second stomp of “Not Gonna Let My Imagination Bring Me Down,” reminiscent of “We Will Rock You,” that keep the album animated. A combination of home and studio recordings, Mazes Blazes manages to sound unfettered and free from any stylistic obligations, but it doesn’t sound at all sloppy—the group’s targets may be off-center, but it precisely reaches them.
Highlights such as “Heavy Feather,” with a sturdy, locomotive pace and disparities between glittering notes and a meaty rhythm section, and the relaxed jangle-guitar-rock amble of “My Drugs” are easy to latch onto; these are punctuated with oddities, like the French-sung, unrepentantly bratty “FUSA,” “Song for Edgars” with purposefully ridiculous autotuned vocals, and the doleful instrumental “Glasnost or Perestroika,” featuring keyboards and cymbal washes and including one accordion chord, serving as its sole tiny hint of Russian influence. While the output from The 1900s is more cohesive and focused—in particular, 2010’s Return of the Century is an underrated, stunning pop concept album—Mazes Blazes revels in being like a misfit band of orphans; each track is a little odd on its own, but together, they’re comfortable working alongside each other, in their right place.