REVIEW: Victorian Halls – Charlatan

Artist: Victorian Halls
Album: Charlatan
Genre: Noise core/dance pop (their own description)
Label: Victory Records

Victorian Halls are gleeful and animated about the sheer bizarreness of their music in their online bios, and indeed they have much to be proud of. Charlatan is filled with wild, simpering pop anthems that veer from stupefyingly good to needlessly ridiculous. The album, which perplexes as much as it endears, is artistic and theatrical, with a very definite vision that lends it far more merit than most of its peers. One could nitpick and take issue with some of the less imaginative songs on here, but considering their insistence on being so uniquely brilliant, that would just make me a spoilsport.

The band describe their songs as “compact pop gems” that they then attack “like Jack Nicholson” and it’s a fair comparison – there’s something so harebrained and deranged about these tracks that you almost fear to dislike them. The most striking feature, in the form of the banshee-like vocals, embellishes each track with a wild ferocity that thrills and delights. “Girls Kiss Girls,” the opening song, is funky and light at first before whipping up a bewildering mass of instrumentation starring one particularly crazed piano. The relative sparseness of sound during the verses, with the vocals blazing more or less alone, gives it a kooky and electric sound that’s then charged by an explosive chorus. “Glass Depth Mood” is heavily programmed, and also relatively still during its verses, until a cheeky piano thrill sneaks in. It works better when it’s heated, the choruses and breakdowns held together by a strong bass line and the piano adding a pleasingly discordant note.

“Burn Me Up Like A Wax-Kissed Letter” has a gorgeous sinister piano melody to open, the sound stolen straight from an old black and white film. The vocals are particularly frenzied, singing over a heavy and slightly distorted bass line to create a minimalist yet striking build up to a macabre chorus. When the beat takes hold in the latter it’s exhilarating and infectious, and a delicious bass solo makes an appearance later on to add a wry touch of flirtatiousness to the sound. Further along, this sense of the comically insane is heightened in “Sugar Champagne,” an original and irreverent tune that uses a heavy and delirious combination of cutting guitar and bass to serenade the vocal madness. “It All Started in the Hall” has a similar air of menace to “Burn Me Up…” It’s the longest song on the record, cheeky and sublime, with ample programming and percussion endowing the maniacal piano with more bite.

All this aside, there are moments on the record when the frenzied mass of sound becomes more alienating than compelling. The vocals which quirk and dismay can become downright irritating at times and the few songs that make up the album’s midsection are particularly at fault here. “A Crush is a Crush” suffers from too linear a structure and a sound that borders on standard. “Black Maria” feels recycled and unimaginative. The chorus is big and poppy, but considering the flair that informed the earlier tracks, it’s too by-the-book.

This minor gripe aside, the album does impress right to the end. “Dear, This Is Desperate” takes the vocals down a few scales and allows its verses to unfurl gently and minimally. The chorus then adds equal parts refinement and aggression, contrasting with the stiller sound of the verses. There’s a slick breakdown and a pervasive sense of darkness and tragedy; the song oozing vibrancy and colour. “Martini Elegance” is the final track and appears at an early glance to have more originality and invention to it than anywhere else, with the tantalising use of a string section in the first verse. It gradually becomes jumpier and more pronounced, though it never loses this early sense of glamour. There are lots of artifices and posturing in the build up to the final swell of sound, which is a little too cacophonous perhaps, but makes for an emphatic ending.

Perhaps most commendably, all of these songs find a way to be catchy at least sometimes, even if a few of them don’t quite impress overall. The merriment with which the band punch a hole through mediocrity is eternally impressive however, and the twisted, circus-like sound which permeates this record is a huge breath of fresh air. Even if you find it all a bit too obviously different, the life and enthusiasm which flows through this record is endearing. Further, no matter what grievances you may have, any band that makes being a bit more inventive look this easy is to be applauded.

SCORE: 8/10
Review written by: Grace Duffy

James Shotwell
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