No matter how poignant your lyrics are or how hard your riffs shake, true musical strength often comes from giving your biggest snarl in times of uncertainty. Cleveland rock duo Mr. Gnome set their snarls loose on the 2011 album Madness in Miniature, but now, on The Heart of a Dark Star, they’re finally blowing past the borders of their home state to knock the rest of us off our feet.
As Mr. Gnome, vocalist/guitarist Nicole Barille and drummer/pianist Sam Meister blend gritty blues tones and psychedelic space with rare ease. Listen to how Meister’s delicate drumming punctures the thick putty bass line of “Melted Rainbow” or the way “Odyssey” echoes children’s music and try not to smile. These two could easily make prog metal; their open-string riffs and heavy production are practically borrowed from the speakers of a metalhead’s car stereo. It’s their grasp on floating embellishments — frail horns, soulful vocals, toy piano — that allows them to dance freely from labels, crafting a sound that’s wonderfully detached.
Barille’s vocals sound similar to those of Tegan and Sara, but thanks to some layering, she’s able to stack her howls and coos to form a sound even more melodic than the twins’. Her voice fleshes out lighter numbers like “Mustangs” and “Light” and melts down “Rise & Shine” until it collapses the way most of these songs do: in a burning pile of colorful chaos.
This marks the first time the duo have completely self-recorded an album. Instead of breaking from their nightmare-come-true sound, they filled their home studio with microphones, replacing the ticking of a studio clock with the comfort of being able to record their orchestrations the moment they slipped into their heads. Named after a line from Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Dark Star haunts with dynamic instrumentation and fantastical imagery, all tidied up thanks to Kevin McMahon’s mixing (he’s also worked with The Walkmen, Titus Andronicus, and Swans).
Mr. Gnome are simultaneously busting out of their hometown while still being contained by its isolation. Cleveland isn’t the biggest rock city, but it is the kind of Rust Belt town that motivates the creatively inclined to let loose. The force with which these two pound out their White Stripes energy in “Star Stealers” should come as no surprise, even if it breathes with the heat of a hazy garage recording.
The Heart of a Dark Star weds blues to prog rock under a veil of inexorable hooks and underused instruments. Forget about Midwestern boy-girl pairings riding on heartfelt lyrics and cheeky nods. Barille and Meister don’t play that game. If they’re going to make music, they’re going to do it with full force. Being a two-person band in the middle of Ohio isn’t going to get in their way.
Essential Tracks: “Rise & Shine”, “Star Stealers”, and “Melted Rainbow”