trillian – creature teacher (progressive/ post-rock)
Lala Schallplatten, 2011, DD, CD and LP album, 49m 52s
€12 all formats
Textural rock music, crafted in painstaking sonic detail, utilising intricate and unusual rhythmic structures, has become a ‘thing’ in recent years; but it has generally been a thing in which vocals, while not necessarily altogether absent, take a back seat to the other elements. Not so with trillian: these songs are really songs, in the fullest sense, with well considered chord sequences, lyrics that seem to actually be about something, and melodies that provide each track with its central narrative. The vocal is an equal partner, rather than the dominant element, and for some reason that’s a relative rarity: bands tend to emphasise either their songcraft or their arrangements. Perhaps it’s just that most bands don’t have the expertise to do both things to the same standard…
There’s a sturdy backbone of traditional rock sounds here, bass, drums and moderately overdriven guitars, but the guitars in particular are sonically tweaked to suit their specific context, bar to bar: the extent of the distortion, the depth and type of reverb or delay, the use of other effects is all constantly varied, but subtly, and entirely without disrupting the sense that the album is characterised by a particular guitar sound. There are also a variety of synth, organ and string sounds, and other processed noises of less certain origins. Rhythmic pulses of heavy electronic distortion are occasionally used, in a way that never detracts from the music’s impact as some kind of stylistically accessible, relatively conventional rock music. Every disparate element is used in the service of a broad musical vision, and is there for a reason. It’s a great pleasure to hear so much detailed attention, and skilled craftsmanship, applied to the production.
The harmony is sophisticated, without ever seeming glib or over-complex: chord sequences take unexpected turnings, in ways that carry the listener into unforseen emotional territory, and serve a powerful sense of narrative drama. The melodies, mainly served up by the singer’s unassuming but potent voice, are shapely and well turned affairs, often with very catchy hooks, moving through the harmony with assurance. On several occasions the tunes reminded me of 2-tone, as does the general rhythmic exactitude of the release, although there’s nothing overtly ska-like about the music.
The lyrics are witty and intelligent, often humorous but always delivered with serious intent. I didn’t listen to them in enough detail to offer a real analysis, but they promote responses that reinforce the rest of the listening experience. And what are the principal features of that experience? It’s a serious and moving affair, but it’s not without a sense of fun, and the incredible care with which each track is crafted – material, arrangement and production all dovetailed together to create an unassailable coherence – betrays a real love of the work. One song in particular has been following me around as I’ve been working up to this review, the pocket symphony ‘sketches’, which is not the longest tune, but which speaks with an irresistible sense of journey, one which it achieves through far more than mere dynamics; its combination of orchestration and voice leading is the work of a switched-on musical mind (or minds), and it moves from a simple string setting to full rock groove and back again without even a hint of melodrama.
There’s a lot of unconventional rhythmic, harmonic and melodic material on this album: in many ways it reminds me of the post-Cardiacs landscape of British psych-prog bands I’ve been exploring recently, although trillian are German (not that you’d know it from their idiomatic and intelligent English lyrics). The thing is though, although it sounds pretty wild, it never really sounds that unconventional, even during odd-time instrumental passages, because the songs are just so strong, and so engaging. This album has grown on me hugely as I’ve listened in preparation for this review, and I have to say I already liked it a lot. It is a musical, intelligent, soulful, accomplished, entertaining, moving, beautiful piece of work. Check back later to see if I’ve slapped any more adjectives on that sentence.