Canada, home of many brilliant things: maple syrup, Spencer Krug, that almost British wryness, and, er, Conrad Black, Celine Dion and Avril Lavigne. But of course, Islands are the most relevant right now. Just over two years ago they released their debut LP, ‘Return To The Sea’ – it was full of a strangely quaint grandeur. Infectious, broadly influenced, rich, melodic and dead-on smart too. It’s not to be forgotten also that Islands formed from the ashes of The Unicorns, but it’s increasingly irrelevant now as original Unicorn/Islands co-founder Jamie Thompson (aka J’aime Tambeur) has departed. Confused much? Nah. The fact is thus: the darkness has been honed in on here to the point of no return, and the vague tweeness has been viciously disposed of in Islands’ ambitious quest towards a journeying masterpiece of a second album.
Where previous takes like ‘Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby’ held their genius in how gathered their wit was, this album is stark in comparison. It’s a larger-scale mess of noise with more strings, higher emotions than ever, and frequently epic and persisting mood swings. Opener ‘The Arm’ is dark and broody, with a stunning vocal performance – it’s far from surprising that it was written after Nick Diamonds got caught up in a thunderstorm. It’s got more menace than anything they’ve done before and sets up Arm’s Way just perfectly.
‘Abominable Snow’, on the other hand, is the band’s most tender moment yet with massive orchestration and the sense of brooding that many can only strive towards. But the fact that this is placed directly after ‘J’aime Vous Voir Quitter’ is a statement in itself – ‘Jaime…’ is Ted Leo-ish, open-sounding punk. It’s alliterative, dynamic and also kind of conga-recalling. It’s bitter and ferocious and has a lot to give - but it also contains a huge sense of grief. These two songs hit home as if two completely distinct entities within their own mindspace.
Yet his album makes up a massively coherent whole. It’s conclusive, open, abstract and pinpointing. It's everything, the whole works. And Islands have set the standard damn high for so many of their counterparts. Why? Because it’s got one underlying theme – pain. Is that all? No, it’s of course the way they attack their focus. Be it ‘Pieces Of You’, based on a series of brutal murders that occurred at Diamonds’ school, or the way the closing eleven-minute opus ‘Vertigo (If It’s A Crime)’ retreats and recoils within itself until it dies a minimal, dark death.
The one semi-weak moment is ‘Kids Don’t Know Shit’ which offers much promise with its Aztec Camera opening, but ends up feeling almost too extravagant despite the astounding vocal work contained within it. It’s more than made up for by the broad-spanning ‘We Swim’ and the refreshing jam in ‘To A Bond’. The foreboding, skeletal funk of ‘Creeper’ ain’t half brilliant too. This album’s heart is seeping blood and descending deeper and deeper into itself. It’s bold, striking and without apology – a draining symphony which requires persistence to untangle. Just hold on in there and it’ll reveal itself, all on its own.