Review Summary: No Smith? No problem!
You’d be forgiven for assuming that Midlake was dead and gone following Tim Smith’s abrupt departure in 2012, which left the band in the precarious position of existing without its voice. Smith, who had assumed lead vocal duties and the majority of songwriting credits since the group’s inception, was unquestionably the heart and soul of the band. So, where to go? For Midlake, it seems to have never been a question. In a move equally brazen and bizarre, the band chose not to bring in a third-party replacement, and instead opted to continue in its current state, writing and recording new material from the smoldering ruins of ground zero. As an album title, then, Antiphon couldn’t have been a smarter choice for the band, whose response to the deathcall of Smith’s absence is nothing short of revelatory. Daring and affecting in equal measure, Antiphon finds Midlake rising from the ashes of adversity while shedding the dreary Brit-folk and Fleetwood-inspired stylings that previously defined it. Welcome, evolution.
Refusing to recycle the aesthetics Smith brought to the forefront is one of Antiphon’s most intelligent moves, avoiding a retread that couldn’t possibly feel authentic without the aid of its originator. Instead, the album exists in a plane far removed from previous releases. Simultaneously psychedelic and pastoral, Antiphon works to ease the listener into a relaxed sonic kaleidoscope of cascading leaves and shifting branches, exemplified by “The Old and the Young,” whose melodic, soothing chorus relates growth through the passage of time. If that sounds acutely self-aware, it is. But more than that, it serves as a tagline for the entire record.
Penultimate track “Corruption,” for instance, builds a meditative wave of floating vocals and soothing acoustics before breaking into an extended piano outro replete with flowing vocal harmonies. It’s strange to imagine that this was once the band that penned the occasionally monotonous The Courage of Others only three years ago, but ultimately it’s easy to accept the trade for a freer, more adventurous group of musicians who for the first time feel like they’re channeling the vision of a collective rather than an individual.
As revealed earlier, yes, there are vocals, and those duties are handled extraordinarily well by long-standing member Eric Pulido, whose voice is perfectly suited to the variegated landscape, sounding both homely and removed. His performance on album highlight “Aurora Gone” lends an air of tragic vulnerability to the song, creating a captivating marriage between the emotional resonance of folk and the otherworldly atmosphere of psych. It’s one thing for an album to conjure scenes of weary friends gathered ‘round the fire, but it’s another entirely to take those feelings of comfort and comradery and flawlessly filter them through a multicolored, autumnal haze without dampening the emotional impact of the music.
Undoubtedly, fans will fiercely debate the band's decision to continue using its name following the departure of its former frontman. Beneath the useless noise, however, Antiphon is more than just one of the year’s finest indie triumphs; it’s a personal victory for a band that just a year ago may not have existed. Midlake is alive and well, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome back.