O Emperor – Vitreous: Album Review


Back in April I got lost on bandcamp and wandered into O Emperor‘s house. They had facial hair so it was a pretty happy accidental meeting plus, as you could not doubt tell from my breathless review of the video for “Holy Fool” I also liked what I found.

Now they’re releasing albums, and it’s June.  Today sees the Waterford five-piece put out their second album “Vitreous”, recorded and produced by the band in their own studio in Cork, Big Skin HQ. That click on O Emperor’s bandcamp page seems luckier and luckier with every listen to this strong effort. Buy it already.

“Grandmother Mountain” gently welcomes us into the record with soft piano and quiet vocals, before making us wonder about the conflicted narrator – as the song develops the drums fuzz-up, the strings cease their plucking and bow urgently, the guitars signal doom in a Queen/Floyd futureshock mash-up and you’re left wondering about the wrongness of being “sick and tired of all this fresh air”. We weren’t expecting a wish to “get me back to my gutbucket bedsit/where I can smell the shit in the city air.”

Then there’s “Holy Fool” upon hearing which I will always see (and I quote myself) “Frank Zappa’s reanimated corpse [showing up] inside a lightning storm”, “jauntily waving”. It is crazy rocking fun – and I still like the fact that they snap this beast off when you least expect it – because it really does work that it leaves you wanting MORE!

Next, “Whitener (Part 1)” which sounds to me like the Beta Band meets Lush fuelled by Johnny Cash’s rhythm section, that or they are literally riding THAT train that the Man in Black sang about and recording while they’re at it. It’s breezy, dreamily sung, and segues very neatly into “Brainchild”. Neither are songs to dislike, and they are both good listening, but they lack the shape and punch of their forerunners.

Maybe it’s also good tracklisting as well, however as right now, things get rambunctious with “Contact”. Absolutely MASSIVE drums and a thudding, throbbing bass give this some serious thrust. This feels to me like the right choice for a single – it feels dance-able, every now and then it transported me to the dark, beer-soaked indie disco The Irish in Nottingham.

Next up is my favourite song off the record, “Minuet” which feels heavier, more substantial than its counterparts. The approach on this song is different to others of similar tempo – there’s less instrumentation, and what there is is given more space to echo and sustain, creating a deeper and more powerful ambience. They also let this song build relatively slowly rather than putting all the constituent parts together at the beginning, and then break it down again at the end. This includes waiting to add-in those extra voices or vocal tracks until the middle section, saving the distortion on the keyboards until the voices have been adjusted, and then rounding it off with a beautiful instrumental fade-out that sounds like the elegiac synth music that the cops would have found when they raided Deckard’s room after the end credits of Blade Runner.

Having scared us a little with “Minuet” – a little like the late haunting of “Hudson” on Vampire Weekend’s recent album, O Emperor give us the handclaps, strings and squelchy synths of tap-along-number “Land of the Living” which again develops really well, ending strongly with a distorted lead guitar that shows for the second time their knack of never giving you too much of the good thing.

I have to admit that “Soft in the Head” passed me by on my first few listens to the albums – it’s so slight that it is easy to miss and even now, heading into double-figures of plays, I still can’t get enough out of its two and a half minutes of piano and vocals.

The album closes, on 9 tracks and 29:13, with “This Is It”, which achieved that neat, safeguarded-for-centuries trick of  sounding like the perfect ending for this set of songs. It heralds itself with a potent intro – feedback, ominously underplayed acoustic guitar – and, after teasing you in that way, interspersed with bleeps and squawks, it bursts into the fullest sound on the whole record. The drums have got that satisfying, loud, deadened thump; there’s radio mess squalling away in the background; all of the guitars available are in there: an understated lead, a beefy supporting thrum, feeding back for all they’re worth, before disappearing in an instant after a final “this is it” to leave only the briefest wash of, some noise or other. Now it’s over, and you feel a little bruised, maybe even bereft. They got to you, didn’t they ?

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