Review Summary: A colossal and experimental opus that raises the bar for modern alternative rock.
Good things come to those who wait. For fans of Archive, Call To Arms & Angels
punctuates the band's longest LP drought with a brilliant magnum opus spanning nearly two hours. Due at least in part to 2020's pandemic lockdowns and the resulting surplus of free time, we're still witnessing more artists than usual dropping these kinds of mammoth releases – but rarely has it been easier to navigate a seventeen track, 103-minute double LP than it is here. Call To Arms & Angels
glides and careens, flowing with an effortless grace where instruments ring out with pristine clarity, melodies flourish, and tracks bleed together like veins all serving the same vital organ. Awash in an ethereal haze, Archive's twelfth studio album whisks you away on a dramatic, breathtaking, and unpredictable journey that feels quite unlike anything else you're going to hear in 2022.
Call To Arms & Angels
is something of a rebirth for Archive. For the past half-decade, the band has witnessed and subsequently reckoned with turmoil on a global scale. Frontman Darius Keeler likened the record's atmosphere to the ebb and flow of lightness and darkness as real forces in society: “Writing our twelfth studio album was an extraordinary time for the band. The songwriting became an unfolding narrative as the world got stranger and more disturbing every day. With people’s freedoms being pushed to the brink, the suffering Covid caused and the terrible events in the US led by Trump and the rise of the right, anything seemed possible. To reflect on these times as artists brought up a darkness and an anger, but also a strange kind of inspiration that was at times unsettling. It really made us appreciate the power of music and how lucky we are to be able to express our feelings in this way. It seems there is light at the end of the tunnel, but there are always shadows within that light.”
One can feel this dynamic play out across Call To Arms & Angels
, which is brimming with contrasting yet seamlessly blended elements. There’s a delicate, piano-laden ambiance that overlays the album like a wispy fog, while crescendo-like bursts of harmonized vocals act as rays of light cutting through the atmosphere's cold, mysterious layers. We hear it immediately in the transition from the spacious, celestial-sounding 'Surrounded By Ghosts' to the more concretely-formed, rebellious rock edge of 'Mr Daisy', replete with amped-up electric guitars and a defiant message: “Get fucked if you think I'm in your shadow / play your part as the leader, the deceiver / thick fuck, well you know I see right through ya.” Archive’s playfulness with the concepts of lightness and darkness aren’t just a means to an end for crafting an atmosphere, they’re also pursuant of the record’s overarching themes. A case could be made for ‘Mr Daisy’ representing an ignorant authoritarian figure; their emotional obtuseness/density (as opposed to transparency/open-mindedness) casting a shadow and thus creating a pocket of darkness where there would otherwise be light.
When Archive aren’t exploring these literal and metaphorical textures, they’re taking a progressive-like aim at electronic alt-rock, unfurling its rigid bounds to create something more elaborate and expansive. While the entirety of Call To Arms & Angels
respirates as one, Archive’s ambition is most evident within the five mini-epics that all exceed eight minute durations. The fourteen and a half minute ‘Daytime Coma’ is an immersive world of its own, beginning with elegant pianos that slowly entangle with propulsive synths before falling off a veritable cliff; from there, the track slowly rebuilds until it meets its chaotically dissonant ending. On the nine and a half minute ‘Freedom’, we get a swaggering anthem for personal liberty (or, an ironic look at privilege and greed via the expense of others) that barges down the door with Queen-like levels of grandiosity and infuriatingly pompous lyrics (“My word is right / It's good, it's great, it's white / It's straight / I live this way 'cos I can”) before the whole thing shatters – perhaps appropriately – like a glass ego after only three minutes following the poignant lines “Freedom fills the graves / Freedom for God's sake / Freedom tastes like dirt.” The remaining six minutes meander through aimless pianos and muted hums that seem to magnify the distinction between the song’s two moods – one of unstoppable confidence and the other reflective of what it sounds like when you realize you’re not as invincible as you thought.
What is so impressive about these songs – all of them, not just the lengthy ones – is the daring and almost fearless way with which they progress. Archive aren’t afraid to have hugely infectious would-be mainstream hits such as ‘Freedom’ collapse inward on themselves. They’re also not shy about dangling the carrot in front of their crescendo-expectant audience only to have things fade out to the gorgeous trickle of a classical piano. In the same token, there are moments when you think you’ve floated into a quiet pasture for respite when Archive will suddenly whip out the electric guitars and flood that space with noise. The transitions can be jarring but tend not to be, as Call To Arms & Angels
feels less like a puzzle held together by separate pieces and more like a painting in which the different colors bleed together to form a beautiful image. It all feels interrelated, the product of a bold, creative, and eclectic vision that’s been executed to perfection.
Some of the songs that do the heaviest lifting in bringing that vision to life are also the shortest. Despite the album’s massive runtime and the presence of some absolutely towering pieces, it’s the meek and hushed ‘Shouting Within’ that resonates the most once Call To Arms & Angels
has run its course. While Darius Keeler and Holly Martin balance vocal duties throughout the record, it’s Martin’s performance here that ends up feeling like the crux of the entire experience, both aesthetically and thematically. She self-harmonizes in absolutely breathtaking fashion, sounding pure and angelic atop the careful-yet-emphatically struck piano notes that seem to hold her words aloft. The songwriting is brilliant down to the lyrics, which capture the essence of Call To Arms & Angels
’s inspiration: “Times are a changing now / Existence is different now...People seem desperate somehow.” Keeler has his moments as well, notably the braggadocios and epic vocals on ‘Freedom’, but he also delivers a gem in the gorgeously swelling refrain from ‘Every Single Day’, where the song’s inherent beauty is belied by the despair felt via the lyrics: “extinguish feeling, extinguish meaning / there is nothing.” This album is overflowing with these diamonds-in-the-rough; moments that add body and shape to the ambiance and allow the experience to achieve an ideal balance between mesmerizing aura and infectious melody.
When taken in altogether, Call To Arms & Angels
can be a bit overwhelming. It’s a commentary on the historic events of our time. It’s a mesmeric journey through ambiance, electronic music, and synths. It’s also a rock album with larger-than-life choruses…oh, and a delicate piano-driven folk piece too. The disorientation felt by listeners may or may not have been another intentional thematic component of the record, but it certainly works within the confines of what inspired Call To Arms & Angels
: the series of alienating and almost unbelievable global events of the past six years that have made many of us feel increasingly detached from reality. There’s a vague sense of wandering akin to one’s longing for answers amid the ambiguity of modern truths. It’s that precise feeling that seems to be in Archive’s crosshairs here: an observation of all things intangible, while losing one’s sense of what is real. Call To Arms & Angels
guides us into the fog, offering no clear exit path – only the promise that comes with the occasional ray of light.