The Antlers - Undersea EP (2012)
The Antlers are headed in a new direction. From their last full length Burst Apart, released just over a year ago, to their subsequent electronic remix EP, that much is clear. Is their new EP Undersea the culmination of this directional change, or merely a brief stop along the way? After listening through it a number of times, I’m hoping that it’s the latter. Although it has been touted in press releases as a highly conceptual record that transcends its brief, 22 minute runtime, this does not seem to be nearly as ambitious or as developed a work as many of their past releases.
The Antlers have implemented conceptual themes into their music before, but Hospice this is not. The concept here is more general and a lot more vague than that of their landmark 2009 full length; essentially, it has something to do with… being underwater. The album is a four track EP, featuring subtle, ambient sonic textures that recall the more subdued moments of Burst Apart, which came it at number 3 on my top albums of 2011 list. The synth-laden, atmospheric soundscapes invoke the underwater theme, and the lyrics attempt to do the same throughout with limited success.
On Burst Apart, The Antlers’ approach was defined by a singular mantra repeated throughout the album’s fifth track: “Rolled together but about to burst apart.” On Undersea, they’ve lost that spark — that condensed, suppressed fire that made tracks like “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” so emotionally wracking. Instead, Undersea finds the band embracing complacency and, as per the aquatic allegory, going with the flow. There is no offender on Undersea worse than the 8 and a half minute “Endless Ladder,” which, true to its name, drags on for what feels like an eternity with an obnoxiously tedious-sounding loop and lyrics that, for the most part, make no emotional impression whatsoever. “Crest” shows promise with synths and jazzy horns that recall Burst Apart, but its lyrics go nowhere, and the song buckles under the insufficient support of its sensuous atmosphere. On the whole, the sound textures of Undersea are very pretty and do a good job of conveying the kind of subaquatic feeling that the band strives for, but aesthetic alone isn’t enough to make this EP worth listening to repeatedly.
The moments of transcendance from the suppressive, ambient atmosphere on Undersea are few and far between, although it is worth mentioning that they appear on at least half of the songs on this 4-track EP. Lead single “Drift Dive” took some time to grow on me, but I finally came to enjoy it quite a bit, largely because of its gorgeous falsetto chorus, but also because of one particular line in the first verse in which frontman Peter Silberman sadly, knowingly croons, “the planet drowns in a hundred days.” To me, that line (and the subsequent chorus) is the lone moment on which the “undersea” concept works on an emotional level, although it’s frustratingly short-lived. In its quiet, minimalist first verse, closing track “Zelda” also hints at something more fulfilling for Undersea, but it soon resigns itself to the same atmospheric meandering that defines the rest of the record. Ultimately, The Antlers are a singer/songwriter act, and with such a diminutive lyrical presence on this EP, it’s hard to not feel utterly disappointed while listening to it.
Everything about the presentation of this EP, from its garish cover to its bizarre aquatic themes and lyrics, feels not uninspired but rather mis-inspired. It’s as if Peter Silberman and company conceptualized an idea for the EP that only they thought would actually make sense, and nobody stopped them from going forward with it until the recordings were already completed. The result is a record that not only feels utterly drained of emotion and energy, but also seems conceptually out of touch and misguided. It’s a frustrating album on both counts, and an unfortunate low point in their otherwise excellent discography.
Key Track: “Drift Dive”
Undersea is available now on ANTI- Records.