Review Summary: An unforgettable, extravagant trip through the inner workings of a surreal world.
“A Dweller on Two Planets” and its sequel, “An Earth Dweller’s Return”, were released to bewildered readers in the early 20th century and soon gathered a rather niche cult following, mostly due to the surreal nature of both books and the bizarre instances surrounding their creation. Work started on the first book when a child genius’ hand was possessed by a dark power, forcing him to write continuously until the feeling slowly ebbed away (a convincing story, I know). These initial demonic scribblings soon evolved into a tale of futuristic technology, black magic, heroes and villains: all set, for the most part, in the mystical, aquatic city of Atlantis. On discovering these books, Pepe Deluxe took the only logical step in deciding that they were perfect material for a pop-opera concept album. The result is “Queen of the Wave”, the most ambitious and aggressively bizarre album we’re likely to see this decade. Confining itself to only the key points in the story, instead choosing to focus on indulging in the sheer madness of the source material, “Queen of the Wave” demonstrates Pepe Delux at their best: splicing an alarming multitude of genres while keeping a renowned sense of charm and narrative.
The result is a spectacle with all the glitz and the glamour of a high-end Broadway show. Like an expensive lap-dancer, “Queen of the Wave” is careful to keep you at arms distance while it seduces you, likewise it knows that it’s the lack of personal connection that fuels this illustrious factor of mystery. It presents itself as impenetrable; a never ending barrage of various sound, some of which have never been heard before. This isn’t a surprise, in retrospect, as in the 5 years proceeding their last album the two men behind Pepe Deluxe have certainly kept themselves busy. Visits to the famous Stalagpipe Organ, a 500,000 volt Tesla coil synthesiser and Edison’s ghost machine have not gone without their merits. The Stalacpipe Organ (the largest instrument in the world, think of a regular organ and then imagine that, in place of pipes, it uses stalactites), especially, shows its value in In The Cave, a vast, haunting piece that stands away from the bulk of the album by being so humble. Elsewhere, “Queen of the Wave” cannot be expected to show restraint. Echoing the style of its subject matter, it assaults the listener with colourful, neon splashes of pure self-indulgence. Rich beds of sublime wind instruments battle with jazz bands and blues guitar and keyboards and synthesisers and etc. and etc... no genre or style is left untouched as you’re swamped by the album’s never ending influences. The result is something very baroque, but at the same time eerily cheerful. The inclusion of two very talented vocalists, both of whom echo the finer moments of mid-20th century jazz, completes a package that is, in every respect, larger than life.
Nothing displays Pepe Deluxe’s predisposed attitude towards excess quite like The Storm, a piece sounding like it’s been ripped straight out of a 60’s thriller b-movie. Ominous choirs scream out cult-like chants, only to give way to rolling percussion, blaring brass and car-chase guitar solos. It’s incredibly dramatic and recklessly progressive as it barrels towards the sea-side carnival, farewell jaunt that is Riders on the First Ark. At the same time, it still manages to instill a certain sense of suspense in the style of an old spy movie when the song briefly breaks down to light percussion and plucked cellos. It’s a marvel that an album appearing to have so much fun can be as deep and nuanced as “Queen of the Wave”. Pepe Deluxe’s attitude that “more is more”, with their songs presenting layers and layers to be unravelled, would be destined for disaster if the album wasn’t so carefully constructed, and it’s a testament to their skill that the album doesn’t collapse under the weight of all their ambition. A criticism could possibly be made by declaring that the story of the books is almost smothered by the extravagance of the music surrounding it, but the story is there, if you look for it, and the slow realisation of the narrative makes the album all the more interesting when it finally - kind of - makes sense.
In the end “Queen of the Wave” is unlike anything that’s come in a long enough time for it to be significant. Where most artists seek to acquire an intimate subtlety with their work, Pepe Deluxe charge in the opposite direction with an unashamedly bonkers romp through retro beats and surreal landscapes. Completely impossible to relate to, but better for it, “Queen of the Wave” still manages to drip with charm. Rarely has an album been so lovingly produced, and so exciting to listen to. The duo have set out to impress and have only exceeded expectations in creating something truly unforgettable.