Review Summary: An ambitious rock opera that remembers to be fun.Queen of the Wave
starts inauspiciously, with its near-titular opening track "Queenswave" - the music's pretty great and it's got a nice melody, but the lyrics (the opening couplet runs 'let me sing a song for you/let me spin a tale that's true') is reminiscent of every dreadful, everything-in-excess lame rock opera you've ever heard. At this point, the album could just as easily be a Tommy
-style stinker or a Hazards of Love
-esque masterpiece, or something merely passable like S.F. Sorrow
The answer is none of the above. It's a lot more interesting than that.
Pepe Deluxé's sound is a treasure, the kind of concoction every band should aspire to, because it's very easy to enjoy while simultaneously quite hard to understand or get a real grip on. The list of music that informs what they do is as impressive as what they do with it; they're just as happy to draw from the cod-Medieval feel of a band like Blackmore's Night as they are to indulge in the psychedelic whimsy of '60s outliers like the UK Nirvana, and they offset that feyness with robust classic pop songwriting. They're never afraid to drop in a dirty, distorted synth either, a trick they may well have learned from Soft Bulletin
-era Flaming Lips.
It's an impressive balancing act between influences, one that stretches out to include a few surf guitars here and there, a filmic sweep that feels like it references both James Bond and Quinten Tarantino's film soundtracks, and occasionally, the kind of Baroque arrangements that the Sufjan Stevens of Illinois
and the Nick Drake of Bryter Layter
might have appreciated. Comparisons have been made in some quarters to Janelle Monae, and while they sound literally nothing alike, it's a testament to not only the ambition of Pepe Deluxe, but their ability to do so many things at once without ever forgetting about the melody, that the link has even occurred to anybody.
It so easy to be impressed and swept away by the music that it's easy to forget, or even not notice in the first place, that Queen of the Wave
is a rock opera. But yes, it is a rock opera, and yes, it's just as self-indulgent as the best (and worst) of them at heart, despite never actually sounding all that self-indulgent. It has, for instance, around a dozen vocalists, although the temptation while listening to it is to lump all of them into either 'male' or 'female' and just hear it as two singers (the voices are nowhere near as distinct as, say, Anais Mitchell's Hadestown
), while the libretto (if that word is appropriate for rock opera) comes from a 19th century text about the fictional state of Atlantis. It all sounds like typically weighty, po-faced prog conceits, but there's a real sense of playful humour about all of this, as song titles like the children's story-referencing "Iron Giant" and the obvious pun "Riders on the First Ark" should suggest.
Queen of the Wave
is a record that takes on more challenges and obstacles that is either necessary or sane, but it triumphs in the face of all of them. There are plenty of albums that attempt this much, and plenty that do everything right, but few that do both at the same time, as this does. Dense, satisfying, and fun - this deserves to go down as one of the peaks of baroque pop in recent years.