What a lousy time to have to live through (our thoughts are, again, with the beleaguered people of France.) While we’re fans of darkness in creative form, the seemingly incessant barrage of fear, ignorance, and anger in the world at large is really starting to wear thin. So, while half of our local readership has trekked off to the interior of British Columbia for Armstrong Metalfest this weekend, we thought it an ideal opportunity to veer off the beaten track and boldly go where darkness fears to tread: the realm of pop music.
Lately a veritable no man’s land of redundant hooks and melodies, pop music has taken on an increasingly bleak aspect since the turn of the millenium. “The bottom has fallen out of the music industry,” says Moulettes lead vocalist (and cellist, and guitarist) Hannah Miller, “so record labels aren’t investing in brave, unusual music; major labels certainly not.”
Generally speaking this is not a brave time – people everywhere cower in fear as uncertainty clouds the path of progress, which has caused civil unrest and stoked variously dangerous political agendas. Hailing from the UK, where the disastrous Brexit referendum so recently flipped the British Isles on their heads and potentially out of the European Union (one likes to think this monumental foolishness will be retracted before it causes any further damage), with the release of their latest album Preternatural, the quintet (rounded out by: Oliver Austin – guitar, percussion, vocals; Ruth Skipper – co-lead vocals, bassoon, autoharp; ,Jim Mortimore – bass, vocals; and Raevennan Husbandes – co-lead vocals, electric guitar) have answered the call to not only bring new direction and purpose to popular music but also to remind listeners that there is hope for humanity, dark though the hour may be.
“I’m heartbroken, actually,” says Miller regarding the Brexit results. “The good thing is that, actually, at this point, across parties there’s a lot of people that are engaging politically that wouldn’t normally; so, I guess the best thing to do is to work out how to galvanize this kind of energy into something positive and just try and take action.” The strategy has certainly worked well on Preternatural, which takes for its main inspiration the humbling and gratifying experiences of scientific discovery; Miller cites the example of the tardigrade, a microscopic organism with the uncanny ability to survive in the most adverse conditions, including deep space.
“It’s just one of those things that shakes your perception a bit because here’s a creature that nobody thought could exist. The fact that it was discovered meant that the boundaries and parameters of possible life had shifted again – and I think there’s something really hopeful and reassuring about having your preconceptions challenged.” Her words echo sentiments similarly expressed by Finland’s symphonic metal veterans Nightwish, whose last album Endless Forms Most Beautiful eponymously quotes Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and owes much of its inspiration to the writings of Richard Dawkins.
“…[T]here’s so much that we know that we don’t know, and still so much we don’t know that we don’t know,” says Miller, who sees this as reason to eschew dejection and embrace one’s own curiosity as a means to achieve new discoveries. “I sometimes think I’d like to go back and study this or that, but then I think, actually, I can just study whatever I want and turn it into a project.”
Preternatural is very much that sort of project – one which deviates from the known in order to embrace the thrill of discovery. Says Miller, “I think these are very strange times and very dark times. There’s a lot to be said for trying to get out of the standard love song formula and I think behind that was the feeling that there’s just something larger at work that we need to serve with art.”
Beginning with opening track “Behemooth” (a song about “The Bloop”, a puzzling and as-yet unidentified sound recorded in the Pacific ocean), the album breathes new life into pop music and raises its IQ by several points, lyrically exploring scientific concerns and mathematic equations (e.g. the Fibonacci sequence on “Patterns”) while musically employing string and wind instruments that one does not often hear in pop music (how many Top 40 listeners, for instance, know what a bassoon is, never mind what it sounds like)
While it isn’t a completely new idea – there have been other acts over the years that smartly explored pop music through innovative instrumentation and arrangements (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum immediately comes to mind), with Moulettes, Miller is determined to reach a larger audience both at home and abroad. “We’re really excited to set up our own label, Craft Pop, and the idea behind that is to release complex, progressive, diverse music that we love and other people love.” Preternatural‘s bright sound and smart lyrics are well-positioned to perk up the ears of the broader listening public, which could certainly use a little audio enlightenment.
Moulettes perform at Vancouver Folk Festival this afternoon and this evening:
2pm: “The British Are Coming!” Workshop with Lucy Ward & The Young’uns (Stage 2)
6:20pm: STAGE 3 at Sundown – Main Show
Day and weekend tickets available at the gate, go here for more info.