Nick Thorburn was born a Unicorn, but has since become the Magellan of indie-rock. His latest project, Islands, explores uncharted musical waters in search of sunken treasure — and he dredges up plenty of gold this time around.
Arm’s Way (“harm,” pronounced by a French-Canadian tongue, doesn’t have an “h”) maps out a diverse musical continent populated by jagged riffs, tribal drummers, and flesh-eating gnomes. Islands also finally embrace beefed-up production values — but just because they’re on a fancy ship doesn’t mean that their course is any less adventurous. They dip their toes in everything from punk to Afropop (“J’aime Vous Voire Quitter” blends the two seamlessly, in under three minutes!), and toss conventional song structures overboard with glee.
While they may experiment with style, Thorburn never screws with his melodies, and even the most esoteric stuff is laced with pure pop goodness. With its danceable, horror-flick vibe, “Creeper” is impossible to get out of your head — not unlike an axe blade.
Thorburn is clearly obsessed with blood and gore (“I was attacked by a pack of dogs frothing at the mouth/stabbed in the face/glass in my guts”), but his fixation differs from the macho-goth posturing of, say, Cannibal Corpse. Thorburn’s jones for the macabre recalls Goosebumps rather than “Meat Hook Sodomy” — especially when paired with violins and oboes.
The music becomes as grim as the lyrics on the record’s much-slower back end, leading to a serious drop in energy (with the exception of the rave-up codas of “Life in Jail” and “In the Rushes”). Despite the nice touches of chamber pop (“To a Bond”) and the anthemic-but-sleepy “I Feel Evil Creeping In,” it’s here that the band’s proggy sensibilities finally start to wear, culminating in an 11-minute finale that practically dares the listener to skip to the top of the album again.
Arm’s Way isn’t always smooth sailing, but the good stuff is definitely worth braving any choppy waters.