Review Summary: A solid remix can't fix all of Experiments' problems with a smothering sound, hampered by generally unfulfilling short-term songwriting, but patient listeners can find some tense, beautiful highlights buried within.
Frost*'s recently released 13 Winters artbook features a lengthy interview with frontman Jem Godfrey, taking us through every phase of the band's career. At this point, the Experiments In Mass Appeal era is regarded as the most rough-and-tumble. In hindsight, it was a very quick turnaround between the band reuniting and actually finalising and releasing their second album, and you can immediately look at Jem's touring with Dream Theater and getting into the Foo Fighters and wanting to make a “Foo Fighters-y album”, not to mention that the big selling point of 13 Winters itself was a full remix of this album, to get a sense of how well this “experiment” panned out with many fans of Milliontown. As many years as winters later, I can't say I'm any more impressed, even if the remix is far and away the better finished product.
Calling Experiments a failure is unkind; it's just hard to divine how this was meant to be the band firing on all cylinders, or living up to the promise displayed on Milliontown, or even them playing to their strengths. Every other Frost* album opens with a rollicking banger, but the title track has a solid minute of acoustic warm-up that's almost reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, and even the main theme sounds a bit restrained when it kicks in. Immediately, the song highlights the album's strengths and weaknesses.
Jem Godfrey not only gives a lot of backing vocal duties to guitarists John Mitchell and Declan Burke, he also simply has the best performances of his career on this project. So many of the vocal lines on Experiments are giant, soaring melodies that highlight really hard notes to hit, and Jem hits them perfectly. Some elements of the album lack colour, but the vocals shine from beginning to end, as emotive as they are energetic. The operatic layering on the title track, the self-layering on Saline and Wonderland, the duet on Welcome To Nowhere, all these vocal performances add so much dynamism to a project just overall lacking the flavour of every other Frost* release.
Which is why I question is trying to make a “straightforward rock album” out of Frost* was just misusing the talent of everyone on board. Verse-chorus is a sturdy song structure that shouldn't be a curse even to a prog rock band, but Frost* just rarely deploy any real surprises on this record, which makes a lot of songs feel like drags even when the album is less than an hour long. I once pinpointed this album's shortcomings on the band's frontman becoming fast friends with Dream Theater's Jordan Rudess, who I firmly credit with slowly choking the life and creativity out of that band, but reading that Foo Fighters were just as much of an influence gives all too much insight into how direct and unsophisticated the overall sonic palette of the record turned out.
Many small riffs in the bridges and middle eights of songs like Welcome To Nowhere and Pocket Sun provide levity and variety to counterbalance the rigid structure of much of the album, and even these tiny digressions can totally justify the straightforward nature of some tracks. Toys is just one of the band's best songs; it's a tight, punchy, catchy but still progressive slice of pop-rock that is the best blueprint of what Frost*'s blend of the two worlds could be on this album, and the album's remix highlights the delicious tension and depression that permeates Falling Down.
But most tracks are simply okay; pleasing to the ear, but missing something, and generally overlong. Saline is a beautiful acoustic piece with some inspired passages, but the coda just repeats ad nauseum, and because this is a mere three tracks after the title track, which does the same thing, it can make an overall album listening experience a bit of a chore, and that's something that's just not usually a problem with prog rock, a genre built for the album format.
If there is one thing that separates EIMA as an album though, aside from its more straightforward and rugged nature, it is how dark it can be. Opening with an eight minute song about the crushing misery of modern life that eventually smothers the listener in giant vocal soundscapes is a bold move compared to Milliontown's more traditional instrumental prog send-up. A lot of the album is too lyrically oblique for my tastes, but what can be gleaned is deliciously cynical, even if it isn't a gut punch like Falling Satellites. Falling Down, once again, is just a damn depressing song, both lyrically and sonically; it really does tap into something truly hopeless and stark, all while working with well-worn prog tropes, and even though it's the kind of song that would definitely be done better on their next album, it has the best mix of punchy songwriting and up-and-down flow to be an engaging listen.
A lot of the album's darkness also manifests in how crushing the production is, and this is definitely a criticism even Jem himself agreed with. The album's over-reliance on sudden contrast between quiet and loud led to a lot of EQ problems; arguably, it made songs like Welcome To Nowhere unlistenable. The remix smooths out these transitions and makes the quiet parts a bit louder to highlight their contents, and just widens the overall mix in general to give everything a tiny bit more room. That said, I feel he botched Dear Dead Days somewhat as I actually prefer the frantic nature of the original mix. Besides that, every change is a welcome one, including just giving the final Secret Song its own track.
But this album's problems with a smothering, almost uniform sound infiltrated the songwriting too, which of course a remix is not going to solve. One of the more concerning parts of the 13 Winters interview says that Jem asked drummer Andy Edwards to not use any toms during the recording, which means the drum parts are awash with different cymbals in an attempt to diversify the grooves somehow, anyhow. Credit where it's due, I didn't notice until I was told, but once I did, I couldn't un-notice. If the album is called Experiments In Mass Appeal, why is the instrumentation deliberately restrained in just this one area? It robs the album of a lot of colour and only amplifies its issues with a smothering soundscape.
It's also a shame because it belies another one of the album's biggest problems: a lot of its more fun digressions are beneath the surface, and its showiest moments that demand you pay attention just...often aren't brilliant? The guitar solos on the first two tracks, and the synth solo on Pocket Sun, are just boring, feeling predictable and not having a lot of range unto themselves. It's the kind of flaw that highlights how stifling a more pop-centric song structure can be.
Still, there is a great potential audience for Experiments. Somewhere within its winding but ultimately simple compositions, I can see a more patient listener digging into the beauty of songs like Saline and the title track, which have these giant symphonic pay-offs that slowly build up over minutes at a time, or the ambient wind-down of the final Secret Song, which vaguely sounds like background music for Persona 3. These build-ups just take too long to escalate in my opinion, and clash with much more direct songs like Welcome To Nowhere, which is all big bangs juxtaposed to light piano passages and bit-crushed bridges, or the extremely poppy Toys or the more sustained and hovering Wonderland.
So there's no shortage of good songs on Experiments In Mass Appeal, and only a few true duds, but in so much of the album, you can hear the band clearly stifled and restless. When Pocket Sun, the album's most middling song, was re-recorded for The Rockfield Files, they completely changed the verse and chorus composition, leaving only the bridge intact. Even when the album was finished, it was unfinished. It doesn't have near enough of the playful colour and energy of Milliontown, and certainly none of the sweeping emotive energy and grandiosity of Falling Satellites. It's an album with an identity crisis, caught between straightforward rock and full-on prog, and will probably only truly appeal to those with enough patience to tolerate both the highs and lows of each direction. It has enough shock and splendour for a cautious recommendation, but it's easily the lightest three stars I've given in a while.