Album Review: exmagician – Scan the Blue

By on Thursday, 24th March 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

exmagician Scan the Blue album coverA part of me dies when a favourite band decides to call it a day. There is a touch of sadness associated with such an end, knowing you’ll never see the band in the form you knew it perform or make music together again. However, as many of you know well, just because one band ending doesn’t mean that’s the end of the road for the talented musicians who used to go by its name. While we don’t know how or why Belfast psych rock outfit Cashier No. 9 imploded, I feel utterly thankful that ex-members Danny Todd and James Smith decided to soldier on with a new project, christened exmagician.

Last autumn, they released the ‘Kiss Your Wealth Goodbye’ EP on Bella Union and this week, they return with their debut album effort ‘Scan the Blue’. While there are touches of Laurel Canyon psychedelia peppered across this new album, along with some folkier, introspective moments, there are louder, harder sounds achieved through rockier minor key progressions lyrics compared to the songs on 2011’s ‘To the Death of Fun’. This makes me wonder how much Todd and Smith’s own life experiences shaped their new sound. The press release says the songwriters had no desire to write a conventional love song, preferring instead “hope, trust and revenge…they always fall into those three categories,” further making this a refreshing listen. It’s also worth noting that on this album, in addition to the hard, there is also the soft, or at least the smoother.

‘Bend With the Wind’ may feel like it sticks out like a sore thumb, as it is neither in your face nor particularly acerbic in its words. Its shiny synth notes, coarse guitar lines and happy horn section have a bright, yet honeyed quality, as Todd sings, “in a few months, I’ll be lost and away / pointing in a brand new direction”. Of the tune, Todd himself says, “I wanted this song to sound a little bit broken, confused, nervous but at the same time triumphant.”

‘Bend With the Wind’ may have been the duo’s way of expressing their anxiety about releasing a new record, but as you listen to the rest of this album, you will find it is superfluous. ‘Smile to the Gallery’ and title track ‘Scan the Blue’ are more atmospheric entries but comparatively less impressive, like looking out over the water at the fog of the Irish sea. It’s a pretty sight, but it’s harder to find meaning from it. (I only bring this up because I’ve gazed exactly like that by the water in Liverpool, imagining the Beatles doing the same exact thing so many years ago, desperately trying to feel a modicum of cool.) Twangy guitar and a slower tempo on ‘Feet Don’t Fail’, appearing in the middle of the album, feels more like a palate cleanser, a towel to wipe one’s brow, if you will, before heading into the second half of songs.

While ‘Job Done’ was played on guitars purposely tuned to bagpipe tones, you’re in for a shock two-thirds in, when a guitar solo kicks in and what somewhat gentle stomping rhythm that that has been burbling in the background suddenly feels like a slap to the face. Far more deft is the sneery, dark, bluesy feeling expressed through ‘The Rot Set In’, following by the slightly demonic beginning chords and foot stomps of ‘Wild Eyes’, going into a rollicking rock number. This is wide-eyed, swaggery, confident songwriting.

When exmagician go to that dark, shadowy place, it’s like the musical equivalent of a rough and tumble construction worker who strolls into the pub for a pint and makes it clear he takes no crap from anyone. So the question for me is, which is the true nature of Todd and Smith’s writing? The uncompromising, unyielding man in black, or the cool as a card shark dude in the shades, noodling away on his guitar, staring at his shoes? Either way, going along for the ride is wholly enjoyable.

7.5/10

‘Scan the Blue’, the debut album from exmagician, is out tomorrow, the 25th of March, on Bella Union. Watch the album trailer below. For more on exmagician on TGTF, go here.

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