The cover art of In Cascade shows a human figure wearing what appears to be a fur-lined coat, head tilted just slightly up, eyes presumably turned toward the striking aquamarine sky full of stars. It's the perfect image for the EP—because the four tracks offered are, at times, just as other-worldly, just as stark, just as oddly gorgeous as this image.
The 25-minute EP starts with “Northern Sky,” a song that begins with a fade-in of ambient noise before vocalist Neil Beards enters with an echo, then a synthesizer (or is that a theremin?) joins, and it becomes clear that The Amber Herd knows how to use noise to create a unique soundscape reminiscent of Spiritualized or, at times, Pink Floyd. They also know how to use their lyrics to tell a story, which is quickly apparent in “Northern Sky.” This first track, at just under four minutes, is perhaps the most radio friendly on the album—The Amber Herd's sometimes psychedelic songs usually do not dip below the five-minute mark. It is also the song with the catchiest vocal melody.
“Hall of Mirrors” takes us further into the realm of psychedelia: Everything about the production is dreamy. The guitars seem to swirl around, the vocals are slightly distant and one has to strain a bit to hear them, but then a lead guitar and a bass line ground us and we find at the heart of the track a well rendered pop song, also well adorned.
If there is a ballad on the album, it is “Thursday,” a gentle, romantic track that could have easily turned cliché, but doesn't. There is enough originality in it to carry a listener through to the final track, “Stage Fright (Payola Disco Remix),” which is a new look at a song from Our Only Eden. This track is perhaps the most indicative of how much The Amber Herd have matured in two years: They took a song that was arguably the strongest on a previous record, made it longer, and made it even more engaging. They manage to fill the song with all kinds of ambient noises without making it feel cluttered—it remains simultaneously sleek and full at the same time, with electronic drums, synth, and more echo on Beards' vocals. At the end, he repeats: “Shutup. Do you dream yourself to sleep/or do you wake up?”
Those lyrics could summarize the whole album. It's made for listening through headphones, just before bed, at those strange times in-between waking and sleep, when everything can seem both clear and hazy at the same time.
In Cascade will be available from Herdwork Records on Friday, July 22.
L.M. Alder is a writer, librarian and musician. His stories, poems, and reviews have appeared in Asimov's, Ghost Town, decomP, Corium, the EEEL, and other places. He is the co-author of A Cathedral in a Mason Jar: The Untold Story of Elvis Presley (tNY.Press, 2016). You can check out his band at TheDeafeningColors.com.