For the third album in a row (fourth, if you count that one EP), Kevin Barnes (who is, for all intents and purposes, of Montreal) aims to shake the shadow of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, his well-received 2007 release. With all the requisite elements of a good concept album–instrumental passages aplenty, an unforgettable climax, and a deep, cryptic backstory that culminates in Barnes’ transformation into glam-funk superstar Georgie Fruit–Hissing Fauna has proven a particularly tough act to follow, the sort of record that’s come to define of Montreal so deeply that it’s near impossible not to compare everything he’s released afterward against it. The next record, Skeletal Lamping, played largely like a lackluster sequel, while 2010’s False Priest saw Barnes enlist Janelle Monaé and Solange Knowles for an occasionally exciting romp with bedroom R&B. Paralytic Stalks comes as the first real post-Hissing Fauna record, Barnes’ final attempt to break completely from that legacy, for better or worse.
Hissing Fauna came at a major turning point in Barnes’ career, the point at which his ambitions (which had to that point amounted to seven compelling but mostly forgettable self-recorded LPs) finally outgrew themselves. He had finally ditched the 8-tracks and clever little ditties about bumblebees for full-on rock bombast. Since then, Barnes has done his best not to look back while pushing himself to his experimental brink, though his keen avant-gardist edge–which has cropped up sporadically in recent highlights such as “Holiday Call” and “You Do Mutiliate?”–has repeatedly taken a backseat to his nagging need to reference his back catalog, whether musically or conceptually. Both Skeletal Lamping and False Priest, as well as thecontrollersphere EP that followed, took their titles from Hissing Fauna lyrics.
While that self-aware quality makes sense considering the fact that Paralytic Stalks is of Montreal’s eleventh studio album, it’s refreshing to hear Barnes sound as renewed as he does at album’s start, speaking the bitter opening lines of “Gelid Ascent”: “You are what parasites evolved from/ still an unanswered question.” Even the vocoder he sings that line through can’t hide the familiar bite that’s as present as ever in his delivery. Much of the record is marked by a certain zest; even at his most downcast point, perhaps the paranoid “Spiteful Intervention”, Barnes sounds comfortable in his own skin again, like he’s finally back to making exactly the music he wants to for the first time in a long while.
The surprisingly buoyant ”We Will Commit Wolf Murder”, which somehow turns Barnes’ falsetto cries of “there’s blood in my hair” into a memorable refrain, might be a good candidate for a second single (after the joyous, flute-flecked “Dour Percentage”). However, the alien rave-up of a finish, which finds him frantically reprising that chorus over a percussive, bass synth-driven stomp, might not go over well for radio play.
Though Barnes has often spoken about the “modern classical influences” that had pervaded the Paralytic Stalks sessions, not much could’ve prepared fans for the complex, symphonic elements and near-total disregard for conventional song structure that marks the record’s latter half. No doubt at least partially inspired by Sufjan Stevens’ audacious The Age of Adz and the wildly experimental BQE song-cycle that preceded it, Barnes holds nothing back, toying with dense string arrangements and microtonality in ways that’d make even the shiest of music theory geeks blush with delight.
“Ye, Renew the Plaintiff” is a caterwaul of howls and guitar-fuzz freakouts that eventually settles down into the sallow folk of ”Wintered Debts”. Though its solitary strums and morose verses make for one of the few straightforward points on the record, it’s not long before it too finds itself submerged in heavy string-drone, eventually reemerging to close as a peppy ragtime number. The album’s last two tracks are its most exacting, clocking in at a combined 21 minutes. Though both “Exorcismic Breeding Knife”, which plays like a demented Disney movie soundtrack, and “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission” come off as excessive and meandering the first time around, repeat listens tease the sonic depth out of the sprawling chaos. Barnes’ ever-present flair for the oddly emotive lies in the songs’ impressionistic lyrics, which peak with the album’s striking final couplet: “There are no nations, no concept of ego/Our illumination is complete.”
While many will be quick to tag this album with descriptors like “divisive,” “difficult,” and, of course, “pretentious,” the mere fact is that Kevin Barnes–easily one of the most compelling musical minds in the business today–and his unbridled ambition are well-intact, and indeed still evolving. More than a decade and half into his career, Paralytic Stalks is a fascinating listen, for both old fans and new.
Essential Tracks: “We Will Commit Wolf Murder”, “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff”, and “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission”