The first 45 seconds of the first track, “Riverbank Summer ’75,” off Portland trio AFRAID’s second proper album, “Sinister Vibes,” sounds as if it’s coming towards you slowly, like a train arriving at a station, before snapping into some reverb-drenched programmed drums and, eventually, layers of sound, from keyboards to sirens to singer Jakob Battick’s languidly crooned vocals. It sets the stage for, as the album title most explicitly suggests, some seriously sinister vibes.
Atmosphere — claustrophobic, dark, disquieting but often strangely lovely — is the driving force on “Sinister Vibes,” released this week on West Virginia label Crash Symbols. Throughout the album’s seven tracks, a sense of foreboding prevails, from the uncomfortable murder ballad “The Acid King” to the dirge-like, organ-driven “Visions from the Holy Cross Cemetery.” There isn’t much that’s accessible about “Sinister Vibes,” and nor should there be: this is heady, often willfully challenging music, high on both concept and on carefully obsessed over arrangements. The vague hip hop elements with which their previous release, “Pink Life,” flirted, have been largely abandoned, in favor of a glacially-paced, aggressively atmospheric sonic palette, woozy and, at times, macabre.
Bangor native Battick — a restless musical soul, who over the course of a decade of recording music in Maine has swung from garage punk to alt-folk to his current experimental mode — emerges as the frontman of the group. Creating the vibe of the record is clearly a three man effort, however, with Ryan Cutler’s dubby bass and James Marcel’s nuanced, often understated, highly intelligent Rhodes piano, organ and other synth playing acting as the guiding aesthetic. Battick, against this backdrop, sings like Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, except on quaaludes — or, perhaps a more apt comparison is Scott Walker, the 1960s pop star turned patron saint of terrifying experimental music. It’s a croon; a pained croon, with Battick’s vocals sometimes veering out of tune and turning into more of an existential wail. There’s something oddly campy about his lyrics, what with all the doom, gloom, serial killer stories and romantic drama. If it were not for that subtle sense of humor that peeks through a handful of times, “Sinister Vibes” might collapse under the weight of it’s own seriousness.
“Sinister Vibes” is backloaded with its three strongest songs. First, the nine-minute “Hometown Strangler,” which lays more of those reverb-y drums down underneath layers of Marcel’s exceptional keyboard playing and Battick’s words, before ending on an extended musical coda full of bright piano and, most surprisingly, a saxophone solo — a retro touch that I can’t quite tell if it’s ironic, sincere, or somewhere in between. “Wonderland,” which immediately follows the aforementioned song, brings a touch of Nick Cave drama and erudition to the proceedings, with a harpsichord riff played over and over in the background. The album closes out with the elegiac, poetic, even pretty “Babyfangs ’77.” Clever, unexpected instrumentation is perhaps the strongest part of “Sinister” — Marcel, Cutler and Battick know how to create a world, an atmosphere, an aesthetic, a “vibe,” if you will, through layers of precise, discriminating sound.
AFRAID will play with Bangor bands Holyfilth and Manic Abraxas at COESPACE on Columbia Street in Bangor on Saturday, March 28. The show is $5 and all ages, and music starts at 6 p.m. Bring earplugs. It will be extremely, gloriously loud.