Review Summary: A difficult but rewarding foray into the weird side of art rock.
Let's not beat around the bush: On Land and in the Sea
is a weird album. It takes relatively normal musical elements - constant tempos, 4/4 time, keys that are defined firmly as major or minor - and essentially throws them out the window in favor of an art-rock style that's sure to ruffle a few feathers. Songs like "The Stench of Honey" and "Two Bites Of Cherry" employ rapid tempo and meter shifts with no warning, relying on staccato guitar chords to anchor the song rather than the drums. "Horsehead" is ominous with its alternating male-female vocals, both with an incredibly strong British accent, over a creaking, whirring beat and psychedelic piano line, an ordeal that lasts for less than a minute and a half but makes its presence felt over its entire runtime. "The Everso Closely Guarded Line," as the title might suggest, is an exceedingly odd song, mostly staying in 6/8 but changing up its tempo at unexpected times. What really makes it weird, though, is the cacophony of instruments that surround the song - organ, synth, strings, and some sort of percussive instrument like a xylophone, a baby's cry, and other similar instruments surround the song's art-rock core.
The most curious thing about On Land and in the Sea
, though, is that it's never actually unenjoyable. The entire thing is mysteriously catchy, and Cardiacs have done an exceptional job of straddling the line between trite and impossible to listen to. It's difficult, no doubt, and listening to the whole album presents a daunting task. However, said task can in fact be construed as fun, even if that definition of "fun" does not include sadomasochism. Every song, even the aforementioned tempo shifting ones like "The Stench of Honey" and "Two Bites Of Cherry," keeps a coherent structure throughout the entire piece, and it's almost possible to see the so-called method behind the madness that Cardiacs utilize quite well. For example, "Baby Heart Dirt," while difficult to describe without nonsensensical techno-jargon, is somehow fun with its crunchy guitars, strings and piano, and mostly understandable format. It's incredibly complex, but at the same time it's accessible given just a little bit of auditory work.
That being said, though, it feels like sometimes Cardiacs are being avant-garde for the sake of being avant-garde. It's a phenomenon that's difficult to avoid with this type of music, but for an excellent album such as this it's just a little too prone to following some sort of twisted formula. It feels like every song uses some sort of disorienting tempo change, meter change, weird harmonies, or some combination. This criticism may just be me looking too deeply into an excellent and influential album that's difficult but rewarding, though. On Land and in the Sea
is quite an interesting work, and for all its weirdness it's still an endearing album. It won't endear itself to everybody, but it's fascinating nonetheless.