Review Summary: Progressive psychedelic country-rock enters the scene with a bang.
It’s just what everyone’s been clamoring for: a seldom heard-of country band like Wrinkle Neck Mules forming a psychedelic side project, channeling their inner Pink Floyd, and churning out a genre-bending masterpiece. Wait, that’s not your musical wet dream? Well it should be. After all, country isn’t exactly known for its fervent experimentation, so when it actually happens, it deserves to be lauded. Lately, we’ve seen Sturgill Simpson, Orville Peck, and Honey Harper make waves – and when I reviewed Leon III’s eponymous 2018 debut, I earmarked them as an outfit capable of joining such admirable company somewhere down the line with just a little more creativity and gusto. With Antlers in Velvet
, the future has arrived. This is a gorgeous, sprawling countrydelic experience which marks yet another new frontier for a genre that’s been steadily stretching its elastic bounds during recent years.
Suffice to say, Antlers in Velvet
isn’t your typical country record. A lot of these songs approach ten minutes in length while fielding expansive atmospheres, elaborate guitar work, and pristine sounding keyboards. Andy Stepanian’s vision for Leon III seems to crystallize over the course of these eight spellbinding tracks, his voice transcendent while guitarist Mason Brent’s guitar licks, riffs, and solos echo majestically across various psychedelic soundscapes. This is never more evident than it is during the opener ‘Fly Migrator’, which serves as an overture to embody all of Antlers in Velvet
’s greatest strengths in a nine-minute showcase. The song dabbles in ambient keys, employs varying vocal intensities, and erupts into a huge guitar solo in the final minutes before fizzling out into a sea of various instrumental noodling. If you didn’t know what you were listening to, you might think you’d accidentally tuned in to a classic rock station in the middle of an epic Wish You Were Here
b-side. Leon III’s influences can admittedly become quite apparent at times, but the quality of the musicianship and the incredibly lush production make any transparent inspirations forgivable.
While Antlers in Velvet
certainly has moments of instrumental splendor (the end of ‘Tigris’ in particular is a rollicking good time), its truest strength is rooted in frontman Andy Stepanian’s melodies. His voice here is captivating and ethereal, marking a noticeable transformation from Leon III
’s gruffer and more down-to-Earth approach. While his vocal prowess is omnipresent and elevates the entire album, there are specific moments where his contributions are downright sublime. On ‘This Whisper is Ours’ for example, Stepanian sounds as if he’s floating in the gorgeous outer reaches of space while beautiful acoustic chords, distant swirling feedback, and rustically sliding guitar all gradually envelop his voice. On ‘Skeletal Pines’, it’s more of a contemplative warmth, underscored by gently strummed acoustics and existential angst: “Light my way to the church yard where the ground will open wide” / “Can you feel the weight of the flowers? It was me who placed them there.” Sometimes, the rich get even richer – and that’s evidenced by ‘Faint Repeater’, which may very well be the most aesthetically jaw-dropping thing that Leon III has ever done. The melody is accented by a stunning backing vocalist, and the song culminates in a soulful, eloquently delivered guitar solo from Brent. In short, Andy Stepanian and Mason Brent can seemingly do no wrong as they deliver one breathtaking atmosphere after another.
Antlers in Velvet
is a colossal moment. Psychedelic rock fans will inevitably get their fix from this, but it’s the fusion of genres with both country and even a little progressive rock that elevates this to the point of historical significance. Country music has been evolving before our very eyes, shedding stereotypes and offering a willingness to break itself in order to be remade. Antlers in Velvet
places Leon III right at the forefront of that quest, alongside some very distinguished peers, to give modern country a new look and feel. It’s pioneers like Leon III that help to reshape the figurative property lines between genres. Antlers in Velvet
erases those borders, and in the process bestows upon us an immediate classic. The only question I have left is: are you ready for progressive, psychedelic country rock?