Genre titles can be a slippery thing. More often than not, I’ll tag a band I’m covering with the genre descriptions they use on their Bandcamp page – quite a few of which are inaccurate or just plain ridiculous. The logic of search-engine optimization aside, it seems a bit silly to me when I see 15 different tags for a single band, as if anyone truly encompasses that many genres.
RELEASE DATE: 24 February 2017 LABEL: Self-released
When I see something like this, then: “Prog-pop band from San Francisco,” how could I not be intrigued? First of all, prog-pop? A quick Google search reveals that this is by no means a completely new genre moniker (and how could it be with Pitchfork around?), but it’s still far from something you hear every day. Count me in. The succinct nature of the description is a welcome change as well, basically telling you to shut up and listen. So I did – and found one of the year’s more rewarding listens so far in the process.
Cheshire King patiently works its way through a variety of influences, imagined or real. I can hear everything from Unknown Mortal Orchestra to The Mars Volta (but thankfully much more restrained) and The Whitest Boy Alive (“Rad Angel” in particular). At the same time, the prog-pop label really does stick, as the first five songs seem painstakingly crafted to contain just the right mix of immediate appeal and lasting value. For someone like me, who hates the constricting effect genre labels generally have on creativity and exploration in music, this is a bit difficult to admit: This review could consist of the words “prog-pop” and “good” and you’d have just about everything you need to know. Sad!
From the moment the blithe opening in “Ordinary Day” turns on the listener, revealing a gloomier underbelly, you realize what you’re dealing with is more complex than your standard fare. Cheshire King is like something out of those “how to dominate the workplace” books – it’s the proverbial firm handshake and confident smile, not the wailing toddler yanking at your pant leg. Vesper Sails don’t beg for your attention, they make you WANT to pay attention. The album is also just mathy enough to keep the uninitiated from noticing any difference, and the songwriting is clever without ever departing from comfortable territory.
“Chocolate Hill” takes likely the biggest risks, not so much toeing a line as walking the tightrope between the sweet and saccharine. The payoff is great – producing a memorable and fantastically executed chorus which vocalist/guitarist Marshall Hattersley winds his way through with palpable confidence. By the time we reach the last two tracks, we find ourselves unmistakeably in prog territory. It’s interesting to note that the “prog-pop” aesthetic is thus reflected by the album’s progression itself – a fine touch. In this context, the aquatic vibe of “Lost Coast” (an excellent song in and of itself) seems like it would be sorely out of place as the album’s second track, but it inexplicably works.
And while Cheshire King does suffer the odd misstep – the muffled and somewhat awkward transition to the last minute of “Rad Angel” drags what could have been a resounding finale down into songwriting no-man’s-land, for example – it is such an impressive full-length debut overall that it is difficult not to be thoroughly excited about this band. Should the word get out, I see Vesper Sails occupying a niche quite similar to the one Minus the Bear did circa Menos el Oso: This is music to show your friends who might still groan at Godspeed! You Black Emperor or Invalids, yet aren’t quite satisfied with the multitudes of bubblegum indie artists. Given the wealth of ideas showcased here, it’s impossible to predict how this band will develop from here on out, and that’s exactly how it should be.