Airiel - The Battle Of Sealand
Download: Airiel - "Thinktank"
Download: Airiel - "Peoria"
Download: Airiel - "Sugar Crystals"
The Battle Of Sealand (Highwheel Records, 2007)
Late last month, I had written about Chicago-based shoegazers Airiel and their record release party at the Empty Bottle that evening. Based upon hearing the ethereal "Sugar Crystals" (which still gets my vote as one of the best songs released by a Chicago band this year), I said that I was strongly looking forward to hearing this record. I'm not entirely sure if it's due to unreasonable expectations on my part, but it just so happens that The Battle Of Sealand is like hearing two great EPs bookend a mediocre one.
After an primarily instrumental introduction which recalls the celestial moodiness of Lost In Translation (accompanying visions of Scarlett Johansson are entirely up to you), the album proper begins with the explosive "Thinktank." The song has a similar feel to classic Ride songs such as "Chelsea Girl" and "Kaliedoscope." Like those tracks, "Thinktank" is pure propulsion, and the track which follows, "Thrown Idols," does a great job keeping the pulse.
The album's centerpiece, though, is, without question, "Sugar Crystals." As as song, it is pure bliss and it reminds me of why I love shoegaze so much - the music is pure trip-hop euphoria and is nothing but undiluted sonic warmth. One of the best songs of the year for me, no doubt.
Unfortunately, it's followed by a series of mid-tempo songs which temporarily drain the life out of the record. Shoegaze's strength as a genre comes from being both violently propulsion and sonic sensuality - a combination that really works with slow, deliberate sound collages and up-tempo melodic freakouts. For a mid-tempo song to work it has to contain elements of either the former (like "Machine Gun" by Slowdive) or the latter ("Dreams Burn Down" by Ride). Mid-tempo swagger reminiscent of classic rock doesn't really suit the genre - nor Airiel - well because it doesn't allow the music to breathe (as in the slow songs) and it doesn't allow for cathartic, ear-splitting feedback needed for the fast ones. The result, for Airiel, is stagnation, particularly on "You Kids Should Know Better" and "Mermaid In A Manhole."
However, the band closes out on a strong note, with "Peoria" providing the release that the other mid-tempo tracks on the album do not, and epic "The Big Mash-Up" closing the album on an appropriately ambitious note. While The Battle Of Sealand has its peaks and valleys, there is more than enough material on the album to bathe the listener in a sonic afterglow.