Saturday, February 11, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Pepe Deluxé - Queen of the Wave

By Steve Jones.

Queen of the Wave is the fourth full album from Finnish outfit Pepe Deluxé, currently consisting of producer James Spectrum and composer Paul Malmström. I don't think this album is very reflective of their past work, so I'm going to skip the part where I summarize it. 

In short, this is my favorite kind of album: high concept, adventurous, rooted in the past, but also constantly looking forward.  Supposedly a pop opera in three parts, it is based on the books A Dweller on Two Planets and Earth Dweller Returns, both of which concern Atlantis' rise and fall.  Queen of the Wave is certainly pop, but I can guarantee you will not hear a similar pop album this year.

The songs here sound straight out of the soundtrack to a thriller action or spy film from 1963.  Specifically, the kind of film I would see in a heartbeat, based on what this "soundtrack" sounds like.  There's bombastic horns, tender balladry, psychedelic folk, and really catchy hooks throughout.  Honestly, I'm surprised this album even exists, given its almost comically grand scope.  One read through its Asthmatic Kitty press release, and you see it involved a ridiculous amount of people, instruments, and collaboration, not the least of which being the Czech Film Orchestra and The Great Stalacpipe Organ, the largest instrument in the world.  This is one album that can certainly justify its 5-6 year genesis, and its ambition really does pay off.

The album begins with "Queenswave," which, with its deliberate pace, spacey guitars, and sci-fi narrative, sets the tone for the rest of the record.  From there on, the songs flow one into another--after all, this is an unapologetic concept album--but many of the individual tracks function quite well on their own, and don't mistake a consistent narrative flow with a lack of diversity in sound.  "Go Supersonic" is pure '60s sunshine pop with a comic book aesthetic before it briefly morphs into Wagnerian chanting.  "Temple of Unfed Fire," with its soft female vocalists and warbly electric organ, wouldn't sound out of place in some swinger's bachelor pad.  My third favorite track, "Contain Thyself," sounds like a piece of Celtic-inspired New Age pop with all of the boring elements replaced with awesome ones, including Spanish sounding brass and amazing vocal harmonies.

"In the Cave" is the most interesting track here if only for its background.  This is the track that features The Great Stalacpipe Organ.  In fact, its a Stalacpipe Organ solo.  The piece functions as a pleasant instrumental interlude, but the real draw to this track is the otherworldly sound of the organ, which feels right at home in the middle of this album.  You can pick up other bits of cave ambiance in the background as well, which I really hope were not added in the post-production.

My favorite track follows: "My Flaming Thirst."  This is just pure Bond-theme extravagance.  There's nothing particularly revolutionary about it, but the singer's voice is so powerful that it proves to be the most evocative piece on the album.  It also just makes me yearn for this kind of sound--big instrumentation and operatic singers--to be explored more.  The penultimate track "The Storm" is the one that convinced me to hear the rest of the album.  Undoubtedly the climax of the story, the booming timpani, blaring brass, sweet woodwinds, and practically screaming chorus all come together to make it sound like some serious shit is really going down.  Best of all, there's a surf rock guitar solo in the middle.

More than any other feeling, it is refreshing to hear Queen of the Wave.  The album is so unconcerned with anything other than its own weird voice that it manages to effortlessly distinguish itself from most of the albums in my recent memory.  I think its closest relative would be Janelle Monáe's The ArchAndroid, which similarly uses a flurry of genres and instrumentation to convey its futurist story.  Granted, Queen of the Wave doesn't tell its story with nearly so much feeling and isn't as strong as record overall.  Its highs are high, but there are certain songs and certain moments that feel lacking, especially in the context of such an album.  But Queen of the Wave is still a more than solid entry in the kind of loud, unapologetic, and maximalist sound that has defined some of my favorites records of the past few years (Max Tundra's Parallax Error Beheads You, Owen Pallett's Heartland, tUnE-yArDs' w h o k i l l).

If you want to hear a pop album that will make you smile, whether it be in bewilderment or enjoyment, you cannot go wrong with Queen of the Wave.  It's a piece of '60s curiosity, optimism, strangeness, and excess that fell through a time warp.  I can only hope the rest of 2012 continues to offer this much fun.

Score: Strong 8

(Steve Jones is a music listener who enjoys many records others probably find unforgivably annoying. If you wish to be annoyed outside of this blog, follow him on Twitter.)

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