Pardon the pun, but Division Day‘s last album, Beartrap Island, placed the foursome on a veritable rock. The L.A.-based group sounded like so many other piano-driven indie bands looking for an audience and a higher musical truth. Now, the band has stepped off their comfy home and headed for stormy seas with Visitation. Those storm clouds now find the band in a much better place. Leaving it at brooding synth pop, however, is ignoring an album that takes indie pop a bit farther than most.
Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke once said, “I’ve never believed that pop music is escapist trash. There’s always a darkness in it, even amidst great pop music”. That perfectly describes this album. Speaking simplistically, they’re going for a more expansive, Joy Division kind of sound. But what they do is transfer the energy level from previous recordings and make a well-balanced record that is wonderfully torn between three “settings”. “Azalean” is one of the album’s minimalist attempts at big, ambient sound. The guitar “sings” back to singer Rohner Segnitz. It’s a catchy part that feels like some old school ’60s pop song with melody and layered vocals, but is still modern with its electro-induced ambiance. “Chalk Lines”, with its singable chorus, utilizes more rhythm and break beats to form kind of a New Wave dance party number. But then you have a song like “Surrender”, which breaks into synth madness and takes Segnitz’s mainline vocals and distorts them to a more aggressive level. “Devil Lights” is heavy with the loop effect before an explosion of crunchy guitars dwindles the vocals into nothingness. The album’s standout, though, is “Planchette”. A harp and strumming guitar begin before the effects multiply and burn it all out. It’s a great synthesis of the organics of string work and the noise of technology. And while other bands have seemingly combined similar aspects much more efficiently, the album works with these little pockets. Whether it’s because it’s such a huge change and they’re unsure what to do or not is hard to tell; what I do know is that the songs fit together seamlessly. As a whole, they create a rich tapestry of songs that, while individually missing something, together they make for a great album, with each song enhancing and playing off the ones before and after it.
At a first scan through the lyrics, confusion is natural. Take, for instance, the line from “Malachite”: “In troweling sand, and pulling brick apart/My shovel found a dark green horse…” Even in context that doesn’t make much sense. But if you take the lyrics in the context of the music, they don’t sound quite like art school poetry. “Malachite” has the line “My skin had changed to velvet down/ The color of conifers, and shimmering…” It’s artsy for the sake of being artsy, but with the vocal delivery and the music behind it, you can find yourself singing along. The same goes for “Azalean”; the echoey “Through to the light/Arms interlocked” followed by a guitar flutter is gleefully off-putting. The album also utilizes little poems in “Planchette” and “Reservoir”. At four or so lines each, the lyrics are drilled into your head for four minutes. It’s an aim to not only build the music up around the lyrics to enhance them, but it also demonstrates the group’s rhythmic tendency with words and how they can become more in line with the music. And while I felt a complete emotional disconnect with said lyrics, it dawned on me around the second listen that may be the point. Among other things, pop is about creating this emotional connection lyrically. But their lyrics don’t force you to follow this preconceived feelings designed by the band. It’s much more open to your interpretation of emotions and not fictionalized events or concepts. Most of the lyrics are borderline absurd to be as huge and universally applicable as possible. This is pop music for the emotionally complex.
Part of the definition of a true pop album has to be a fundamental emotional openness; all songs in every genre are emotional, but pop is unabashedly simplistic in its approach to expressing feelings. Even with the effects and the artsy wordplay and the tendency to make darker-tinged music, Division Day has made a pop album with Visitation. While the boy-meets-girl dynamic is replaced with more varied scenarios and they tend to be somewhat pessimistic and nihilistic, this demonstrates that pop music can be deep and can still be emotionally fulfilling, regardless of how you dress it up.