Universes is the second album from Australian indie band Birds of Tokyo. They are huge in native Perth, nominated for and winning many WAMis (Western Australian Music Industry Awards) but the band is yet to have any impact around the world. Formed in 2004 and grafting a trade touring and headlining shows, Birds of Tokyo now put their international fate in the hands of MGM. But how will a home-grown album, produced by the band’s guitarist and song writer Adam Spark, fare in the big scary world-wide mainstream?
The songs on Universes are arranged so that the lead singles are first. This would normally mean that all the great music is stacked toward the front of the album but nothing could be further from the truth. With the exception of Broken Bones, a great bass and riff-driven rock track with a wonderful falsetto chorus from singer Ian Kenny, the first half of Universes is a mess. Wild Eyed Boy is weak emo-pop in spite of great vocals, all diluted guitars and limp chorus. Silhouettic is better but suffers from dumb lyrics: “there goes my baby, she’s gotta know, that when the red lights on there’s no one home” and “I’m saying if you want blood, you’ll never get a drop out of me” being prime examples. Head In My Hands is an odd song. Kenny sings “I hate my melodies. They’re all the same”. Is he being ironic, or brutally honest? This self-examination is hard to interpret.
Only when White Witch breaks the formula does Universes really start to impress. A great structure and a metaphor that almost goes too far: “Kick the cat out and hang up your high heels. Show me magic and spells unknown. With your potions show me some good love…”. At last this is a band having some fun and not taking themselves too seriously. An Ode To Death couldn’t be more different, like Muse meets Queens Of The Stone Age. More great guitars, and dark moody vocals. But the real highlight of the album is the magnificent Armour For Liars. Overtly and obviously political: “I would hate myself knowing that I’m responsible”, sings Kenny, “Flowing blood for wealth and oil, the arms race and their toys. Power suits and power ties, corporate armour built for liars” is excellent and proof that strong song writing is possible. This and two decent guitar solos.
After the prog-rock extravaganza of The Bakers Son, which has more ideas in the first two minutes that the entire of the album’s first half and more twists and turns than the last Mars Volta record, the big balled Train Wrecks continues the impressive roll. The three minute point when the piano melts into guitars is one of the musical highpoints. Universes should have probably ended here but closer Medicine spoils the show. It is an honest open-hearted piece but a bitter way to end the album, downbeat and with surprising uncomfortable expletives.
Universes suffers at times from over-thought and over-production, and the first half really lets it down. It could be a lot less polished. Lead singer Kenny is still involved in the much heavier (and arguably more successful and musically appealing) Karnivool which still feels like a much more comfortable project. This could mean Birds of Tokyo is nothing more than a liberating side-project; a shame as it has much to separate it from its peers.
-- CS (for AltSounds)