Review Summary: Although experiments are always welcomed, at times they don't suit Mark's trademark voice and vibe...
During the ‘00s, Mark Lanegan started shifting from acoustic & lush blues-meets-alternative rock ditties to a darker, raucous style that favored more “mechanical” dynamics. Bubblegum
is where things started changing, but the brilliant Blues Funeral
is where the magic resided. Alain Johannes helped him embrace a different sound, enhanced by electronic elements yet retaining that murky atmosphere (at times, turning it into a haunting experience). Phantom Radio
saw the two men reaching further into the ‘80s, taking cues from The Cure or Depeche Mode, whereas the latest affair, Gargoyle
goes all the way back to krautrock in the ‘70s. It’s an interesting direction which became clearer in the past couple of years, unfortunately, it doesn’t feel as rewarding as the previous LPs. At the same time, half of the material was crafted with the help of Exit Calm’s Rob Marshall, who brought a different perspective and tone too. All three clearly worked to unify these truly diverse tunes into a cohesive whole, but there are some eyebrow-raising moments left.
I believe Mark’s voice works best with minimalist, thrilling and/or really stark arrangements (for example ‘The Gravedigger’s Song’, ‘Methamphetamine Blues’, ‘St. Louis Elegy’, ‘Phantasmagoria Blues’ or ‘Death Trip to Tulsa’). On Gargoyle
, the sound is brighter than usual and thus, the contrast is a bit too high. As a result, ‘Blue Blue Sea’ or ‘Drunk on Destruction’ reach pretty far out of his comfort zone, the former relying heavily on sequencers, while the latter boasts a drum and bass beat over razor sharp guitars. The songs aren’t deceiving, they just sound odd amid his usual output and kill some of that old school vibe he portrays so well. There’s also the jangly ‘Emperor’, reminiscing perhaps too much the swaying groove of Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’. Could be a silent tribute to the legend himself, still, when the “la-las” kick in I find myself humming the classic one instead. It’s a bit of a shame, since Lanegan’s doing a strong job with the low-pitched vocals. Furthermore, I think a grittier version would have been significantly more effective.
Although I started talking about the less rewarding tracks, Gargoyle
is nowhere near a failure. The remaining cuts create a beautiful blend of tenebrous and hazy atmosphere. The three main songwriters melded rock with electronica really nice throughout. ‘Death’s Head Tattoo’ brings forth the synths and percussion over which Mark’s ghastly croon slowly crawls along. The mix is interesting, borrowing some techniques from the industrial genre, the string work is drenched in distortion, whereas the electronics are significantly more prominent. Moreover, ‘Nocturne’ shares some eerie guitars, especially on the chorus where they gorgeously rise, accompanied by keyboard leads. There’s a new spin on the styles used on previous records and it’s refreshing. Closer to the krautrock roots, ‘Old Swan’ boasts the trademark motorik beat, accompanied by echoed guitars. The rather linear direction offers Lanegan a great platform to perform some of the best melodies on the album. The structure gets blurrier with each minute, until only the windy keys and deep bass remain to close the affair. This song finally brings all the influences together leaving us a clearer result of what their vision was all along.
Completing the LP, ‘First Day of Winter’ and ‘Goodbye to Beauty’ are subdued, pastoral tracks that harken back to earlier efforts. As Mark graces us with some exquisite, intimate vocal contributions, the warm notes pass you by like a slow, pleasant breeze. On the other hand, returning to the “mechanical” grooves I mentioned above, ‘Beehive’ is probably the most driving cut on Gargoyle
. The poignant guitar leads push forward just like they did on Blues Funeral
, albeit the overall sound integrates itself well into the current boundaries.
In the end, you can’t blame Mark Lanegan for constantly experimenting at this point in his career. I admire him for jumping out of the comfort zone, incessantly carving his trademark niche, even though results aren’t always stellar. The man showed us how versatile can he be, however, I wish he’d go back to making a chunkier record. The synth bonanza of the latest works is interesting and keeps things intriguing (as well as fun) to a certain extent, but doesn’t maintain that brooding vibe he brilliantly pulls off. Anyway, Gargoyle
marks another solid addition to an extensive catalog and I’m curious where he’ll head next.