Review Summary: A great album that is unfortunately marred by several odd misfires. Blackfield's still doing well, but this doesn't quite top the peaks reached by "Blackfield II."
In 2007, "Blackfield II" was my album of the year. It was a gorgeous work of melancholic pop rock, with just the right amount of sophistication to make the music challenging without bringing the music closer to something totally progressive, like Blackfield member Steven Wilson's prog metal outfit Porcupine Tree. Blackfield's MO was to avoid long, ambient sections, epic guitar solos, and concept albums and instead create brilliantly written songs. "Blackfield II" was just that, along with a major step up from the band's eponymous title record. As such, my expectations for this record, the peculiarly titled "Welcome to My DNA", were not too high. One of the most difficult things for a band to do is to come back from making a masterpiece record, and that seems to be the task Blackfield had in making this record. Their strategy, to say the least, worked like I'd expect it to in many ways, but in others the band made some decisions that didn't quite pay off.
For starters, their game plan involved Aviv Geffen, the Israeli half of the duo (Wilson hails from the UK) writing ten of the album's eleven tracks. While the songwriting credit on past records has never been exactly fifty/fifty, in fact usually the songwriting credit usually leaned more toward Geffen, Blackfield's music has never relied on a single songwriter as much as it does on this record. The album still sounds firmly like Blackfield, with one or two exceptions; Geffen's songwriting dominance hasn't changed Blackfield radically. On one hand, Geffen has proven himself a capable songwriter on past Blackfield outings, so for much of the record there's no reason to fret; on the other hand, given some of the results on this record, it seems that Geffen would have been behooved to give some of the songwriting responsibilities to Wilson.
This fact is made most evident on the album's second track, the not-so-subtly titled "Go to Hell." Now, Blackfield is not a band to hide back anger in its lyrics; tracks like "Someday" from "II" is a prime example of the band doing exactly that. Anger is an emotion common to the human experience, and Blackfield's lyrical focus is usually on exactly that. However, "Someday" actually had substance to its lyrics, like much of Blackfield's material does. "Go to Hell," on the other hand, is one of the most childish and petulant songs I've ever heard. The song consists of three lines:
"F**k you all, F**k you
I don't care anymore
Go to hell"
To call such lyrics "songwriting" by any band's standards is a bit of a stretch for me, but it's especially a stretch given that Blackfield's lyrics are usually top-notch, whereas this sounds like a slacker teenager's diary scribblings after buying into Nietzsche's philosophy. The music that backs the lyrics is actually pretty good; the band nearly had me humming the lazy lyrics. Still, the song is a major offender, and sadly it holds the album back from greatness. It's strange that it does; Geffen has given no indication on past albums to doubt his lyrical quality (although on occasion, some images/metaphors translated into English from his native Hebrew don't carry over so smoothly), but on this album he falters, and not in any minor way. "On the Plane," for instance, is another misstep. The song sounds like something from a kid's television show:
"Daddy's on a plane
Soon you'll meet again
Daddy's on a plane
That's what mother said
While you were waiting"
Geffen has said the song was about him waiting for his father as a child, which is something well worth writing about, but given the context of the record and the whole of Blackfield's lyrical themes, the song just comes off as weird, especially given how cheesy the lyrics are. Like with "Go to Hell," the music sounds like Blackfield; the lyrics, unfortunately, don't sound anything in the band's ballpark. Conversely, the one track Wilson himself contributes, "Waving," with its lead riff sounding uncomfortably close to some of the material Wilson has written for Porcupine Tree, sounds too much like stuff the band has written before. Furthermore, some of the lyrics on this record are great, just like stuff the band has written before; there seems to be little reason why the band should slip up as much as they do on those tracks.
After the first listen, I was a little put off. While I wasn't expecting the band to craft a new masterpiece, or even match the brilliance of their previous record, I wasn't expecting anything as off-putting as the aforementioned misfires. After a few repeated listens, though, I was able to push past the lyrical maladies of a few of the tracks and focus instead on the excellent majority of the record, which reveals a band both comfortable in the already great music they've made as well as venturing into some unexplored terrain.
Lyrically, the album does features multiple high points, which do enough to make one forget the fumbles on the previously mentioned tracks. As a whole, the album seems to come at a point in Geffen and Wilson's lives in which they are away from home often; the album cover's depiction of a man standing above the clouds is the first indication, the lyrics the second. "On the Plane" and "Far Away" both focus on the laments of being away from one's home and family. Other songs focus on different topics and really bring out the best in the band. The excellent "Rising of the Tide" features some curious but nonetheless captivating metaphors ("Your soul is freezing ice/Still I'm asking for a slice"). "Dissolving with the Night" is a dark meditation on meaning and finding significance in one's life. As always with Blackfield, the songs are melancholy and morose, but nonetheless beautiful.
Musically, the album still shows Blackfield as exciting as before. The album opens with "Glass House," a track that sounds like Blackfield's version of "Even Less," the epic opener to Porcupine Tree's 1999 masterpiece "Stupid Dream". Wilson's ever-Floydian slide guitar is present; to add to that, the track is lush with grand strings. The song feels like a much more epic song than it is, given the song is just shy of elapsing three minutes. It's a wonderfully grand way to open the record, and it serves more purposes than to just be a great song by itself. The strings on "Glass House" are just the beginning of the large use of strings on the record. They are present in nearly every song on the record, and they add quite a bit to each song.
This is especially evident on the album's highlight, the somber midpoint "Far Away." The song is deeply heartfelt, poignant, and incredibly beautiful. When the strings come in the second chorus, the song is elated from a typical rock ballad to something much more grandiose, like something out of a musical. Wilson's longing for a home, or some place to call one's own, sounds not too far removed from the lamentations of stage characters past; in accompaniment with the strings, the song sounds like something out of a yet unseen Blackfield musical. The sweeping, opulent string arrangements add a grandiosity to Blackfield's music, making it all the more appealing. This beauty is further evident on the tranquil album closer "DNA," and the darkly foreboding "Dissolving with the Night," in which the strings build up to a gradual climax, only to suddenly stop (something Wilson is a master at). There's no reason why merely adding strings to already great music should bolster the music too significantly, but somehow it does. "Welcome to My DNA" is very different from the band's past two recordings for how integral the string arrangements are to the songs.
Along with the liberal use of strings, the band also takes some interesting detours, most of them prog (which is to be expected given Wilson's typical style of music). "Blood" is the heaviest thing the band has ever done; it's also one with an obvious Middle Eastern influence in the main riff, something that hasn't been too clearly present on Blackfield's past recordings, despite Geffen's heritage. Equally intense is the coda of the album's longest track, the penultimate "Zigota," which is the most obviously prog thing the band has ever done. Rush or any other seventies prog rock band appears to be an influence on the latter song, while Wilson's involvement with the Israeli metal band Orphaned Land crops up on the former. Both, while definitely a departure from past Blackfield experiments, are a welcome addition. The band knows how to add the right amount of heavy rock without totally changing their sound, which is ideal. Blackfield shouldn't get too comfortable in their sophisticated songwriter MO, nor should they depart from it wholesale.
Welcome to My DNA is a good album not too far off from being a great album. The band is still as talented as they were on their past two outings; they don't appear to be running out of ideas. Unfortunately, missteps like "Go to Hell" and "On the Plane" are uncharacteristic for the band, especially since the majority of this record gives no indication that their music is struggling. Hopefully, the band can take their successful blueprint from records like "Blackfield II" and write music in that vein; mistakes like the aforementioned ones are obvious enough that the band should avoid any like songs in the future. For now, though, enough of this album is great that we have no reason to worry about Blackfield as musicians. Most of the music on this record is leagues better than most modern pop and rock music, and Blackfield's songwriting prowess is still as impressive as it's ever been. For sophisticated pop/rock with a dash of prog for those with a little adventure in their musical taste, Blackfield is still an excellent option.