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Album review: The Antlers, ‘Familiars’

Words by Scenewave Australia - Published on June 24, 2014

The Antlers will always be a relatively successful and highly acclaimed “indie rock” band at a base level. However, unlike their contemporaries – bands like The National (I suppose) – The Antlers won’t be getting very much Triple J play at all.

This would regularly come down to their sound being “too sad”. But Familiars isn’t sad; at times, foreboding, yes, but not sad. In its lightest moments it is quite uplifting and hopeful. It could regularly be put down to the songs being too long – the shortest songs here are five minutes long. Or, it could just be down to the idea that songs aren’t catchy enough. This last one is now plainly just a misconception: the tracks on Familiars etch into your psyche deeply; their layers unfold and they become catchy in ways most “pop” songs cannot be.

If you know anything about this band it will surely be the story of 2009 breakthrough Hospice – where angel-voiced frontman Peter Silberman retold the story of a desolate split with his partner through the eyes of someone watching their love die of bone cancer in Sloan Kettering cancer ward. Since then, the band’s trajectory has been as measured and prophesised as their sound. Their expansive, ambitious follow up Burst Apart gained (from many parts) just as much praise as its predecessor. Then came, the jazzy, literal interpretation of a submarine vibe in the 2012 EP Undersea. Now, we have Familiars: Undersea’s natural – and whisper it, predictable – progression.

Gone are the dreamy synth hazes that fizzed under the melodies of past releases: The Antlers know what they’re about now, and every track unfolds in no rush. The instrumentation is mostly analog, which makes the sounds sound at once complex and stripped down. Opener and lead single Palace is quite the statement of intent for this newfound ethos.

Sweeping, earnest and gorgeous, the opener is a meticulously crafted beauty of a thing: Silberman’s voice fairly floats above understated horns and a twinkling piano. A stately build up grows into something matching up with the best of what The Antlers have offered in their musical career. Put simply, it is: palatial. And more notably, in less capable hands, it would sound completely corny. Here, though, everything is in its right place.

The band has been listening to a lot of jazz in the lead up to Familiars, and those conventions shine through on tracks like Hotel and the bouncy Intruders.

Doppelganger is the embodiment of “foreboding”, and Silberman seems to be actively trying to creep you out, whispering, “Can you hear the gentle tapping? My ugly monster’s freezing”. While Doppelganger is the spiritual and lyrical centrepiece of the album, for me, it is the one track that falls flat. It’s a little too long and doesn’t quite have the same direction as the rest of the bunch.

Otherwise, it is hard to find flaws in The Antlers’ latest offering. It is supremely confident and relatable to a point that it makes you question your own interpretations of the songs. No tracks are as emotionally searing as Sylvia or Putting the Dog to Sleep, but in many ways that adds to the slow-release feel of it all. It is, as all Antlers albums are, a wholly-encompassing experience.

What about those single- word song titles? They’ve never done that before. To a large extent, they act as labels (shouldn’t all titles, in some sense?). Palace is about a comfortable, heavenly place; Revisited finds Silberman returning to examine his past. Parade sounds celebratory, like a revelation; and finally Refuge is like a pillow to lie your head on and just think a lil’ bit. It’s a neat, over-simplistic way of approaching this album. But over-simplification is perhaps needed here, because, unlike Hospice’s resigned nihilism or Burst Apart’s defiance, Familiars is a less self-implicit offering.

Familiars will no doubt be called a “slow burner” or a “jazz interlude” by the critical majority. Less favourable reviews will point out some lack of experimentalism in this compared to the wondrous genre-hopping of Burst Apart. Plainer mouths will even call it “boring”.  All it is, really, is The Antlers settling down and showing, in the best possible way, just how familiar they can sound – even though nobody sounds quite like them.


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