Review Summary: plush 80s new wave is the perfect vessel for exploring the esoteric emptiness of the cosmos
All it takes to affirm your insignificance in the grand scheme of things is a glimpse of an uncovered night sky. To see all those stars as blinking pinpricks and mull over the incomprehensible distance between you and them, and to then consider the fact that what you’re seeing is a minuscule fraction of the known universe. As far as concepts go, you can’t get any grander than space. But for some, what’s even more remarkable is that as humans we are equipped with the sentience to even ponder that great beyond. We think, we feel, we love, we mourn. We exist though we might not ought to. And it’s this beautiful, vast dichotomy that imbues Portico, linking those qualities that are unique to humans with the esoteric emptiness of the cosmos.
And really, though it might not seem obvious, that plush 80s new wave sound is the perfect vessel for it. The prior work of The Mary Onettes never failed to deliver on that which was catchy and pleasant. Sometimes it meant sacrificing originality in order to preserve the genre in a sincere way, but the endearing fundamentals were always there: everyman ambition in the vocals, lifted by the delicate catharsis of simple guitar melodies and top-note synthesizers. Their output has never felt contrived or like it was cashing in on heady nostalgia, and their diligence and devotion to that style pays off in a big way with the advancements that have been made on this mini-album.
For perhaps the first time for the Swedes, the tracks on Portico feel bound by thematics, not just a collection of otherwise unconnected, danceable tunes. The expansive production allows room for listeners to drift around in, floating on their backs, the malleable vocal melodies and the floor tom whops acting as the eye candy of celestial bodies. Lead single ‘Silence Is A Gun’ capitalises on every strength that the band has, flirting with excess but not actively seeking it, and makes for a satisfying bridge between editions of the band. Its first line is very telling: “I can be the first in your soul, pulling out what you never show” – as far as the general aesthetic The Mary Onettes employ, there are no attempts at sharp-turn alterations to the sound they evidently cherish, but knacks and subtleties have been extracted that provide just the right spin that they’ve been searching for.
Just seven tracks comprise the album, but each has individualities that lend a hand in making each sound distinct. It’s certainly a trait that the band can benefit from with material of yore tending to bleed into one another. The standout example is ‘Ritual Mind’, which slows the tempo and tackles elements of tension and mounting drama: Philip Ekstrom’s voice is at its most strained, which, behind the echoing bassline and insisting hi hats, conjures a tangible, dewy-eyed desperation and offers one of the most important tools in a musician’s arsenal in the way of conviction. Further to that, we’re privy to a more instrumental section, complete with a filtered guitar solo piercing its way through the dense synth atmosphere as a refrain of “it’s my ritual, my ritual” is whispered. Whilst it may be brief, it’s vital in illustrating the aplomb of every band member.
Largely, The Mary Onettes have iterated the amity of synth-based dream pop and constantly drawn comparison to the brighter side of The Cure’s catalogue, but ‘Everything Everything’ re-gains momentum with its brilliant and positively post-punk bassline and booming drum fills. Sentiments such as “reappear like the ghost I want to become” toy outrageously with darkness, but the almost sugary ‘Your Place’ wafts away any impending black smoke. And after the richness of six tracks each with their own character and purpose, the melancholy keyboard chords of closing ‘Portico: 2014’ feel like the greatest possible culmination. It’s a slow panning out, haunting but intensely graceful, a true expression that the band has learned a lot in the way of structure and wholeness.
It’s just prior, however, that the most resonating portion of the record rears its head. ‘Bells for Stranger’ begins with two minutes of blissful instrumental rising up, each piece swaying alongside another and accepting the reverberated drawl: “There’s a mountain in my heart”. Simple, powerful, it best surmises that joining of the physical with the spiritual. It announces that uniquely human quality of vast ambition. It pairs us fragile, finite beings with the infinite might of the universe and renders us as equal. The Mary Onettes have come on leaps and bounds to be able to express as much with such humility.