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Of Montreal
Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
Polyvinyl Records
www.ofmontreal.net


No, they're not really from Canada. of Montreal, like "new wave" and the many American art-rock bands that burgeoned between the yesterdays of trickle-down economics and Bill and Monica, began in the indie-rock Mecca of Athens, Georgia. Their continuing involvement with the Athens "Elephant Six" co-op in the late 90s (which nurtured the likes of Apples In Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel) likewise formed within of Montreal a communally-structured approach to music-making. At one time they even lived in a house together. This considered, it's only logical that their earliest work buzzed with the "love-in" vibe of late 60's psychedelia. However, by the 2004 release of Satanic Panic In The Attic their collaborative energy was a weakening hum. Frontman Kevin Barnes wanted to do the composing and recording alone, and the rest of the band members had few complaints. So with his new creative freedom, Barnes shifted their musical direction into a more 80s synth-colored landscape. This continued when they joined Polyvinyl Records in 2005, releasing The Sunlandic Twins, a record performed almost entirely by Barnes alone. Now in 2007, with the rewards of critical acclaim and an ever-growing audience, Barnes has not yet invited his friends back to the studio. But considering the wonder of the new world he's created on Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, Barnes privacy seems to have just as many perks for him as it does the listeners.

Not that he denied all helping hands. The CDs kaleidoscope gift-wrapping was done by his brother, David Barnes. Turn over the extra paper "mood circle" inside and you'll learn that plenty of others contributed to the project. Still, every instrument, weird loop, and Prince throwback is signed by Barnes only.

The first track, titled "Suffer for Fashion," opens with a baby's cry. These young tears cleverly mirror the circumstances that birthed the album into existence. In 2004 their lack of health care forced Barnes and his pregnant wife Nina to leave Athens and go to her hometown of Oslin, Norway. The free health insurance Norway reserves for artists afforded the couple the birth of their daughter Alabee. Though the stay was temporary, much of Hissing Fauna was recorded here. These circumstances are enough to shake that "stay-at- home" naiveté common to not a few scarf-wearing scene-kids. And based on the lyrics alone, this is likely what Barnes' wants the song to accomplish.

There's sharp parallel between the crying baby and the song's characters. As Mario Cart synths drive the song forward, Barnes sing "we just want to emote till we're dead/ I know we suffer for fashion or whatever/We don't want these days to ever end/we just want to emasculate them forever." Knowing a bit about of Montreal's history, it's hard to miss the band's personal stake in these lyrics. But all autobiography aside, anyone who's choked on the bohemian smoke and melodrama lingering in coffeehouse air shares Barnes' annoyance. As "Suffer" concludes, listeners get a good idea where the album is heading, and why. With sarcasm, it sings: "We've got to keep our little click clicking at 130 b.p.m. it's not too slow/if we've got to burn out let's do it together/let's all melt down together."

Similar angst fuzzes throughout the radio-frequencies and catchy guitar riffs of the wry "Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider." As the first line recalls, "saw her GO kissing girls/what a shock I said, you must be an artist/she muttered her reply, I was judging her friend as the dj played a dead jam." Without pulling punches, Barnes points to a strobe-lit world where people treat kisses like clothing styles. Where blue disco orbs color the walls but everyone's too pretentious to dance. And yes, the confrontational chorus does border on cruelty. But given the context and odd compassion of its tone, it just might be appropriate. He sings, "Eva, I'm sorry but you will never have me/to me you're just some faggy girl and I need a lover with soul power/and you ain't got no soul power." It's not the girl's sexual-preference that's scrutinized. Rather, choosing difference for the mere trend of it is the sin under judgment.

Barnes' "scenester" annoyance isn't the only emotion this album visits. Other tracks, like "Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse," illustrate the depressive ups-and-downs of a stressed new father. As Barnes' sings, "I'm in a crisis I need help/come on mood shift-shift back to good again/Come on be a friend." This line, sung with the youthful shake of Connor Oberst, shows just how alone Barnes felt while living in Norway and trying to adjust to its culture shock. Moods are always shifting, but it's an uphill battle when living in a place where you have few other companions. The song takes an even more personal turn by referring directly to his marriage. As a later melody sings, "Nina twin is trying to help and I really hope she gets me straights/cause my own inner cosmology has become too dense to navigate." Considering the album's context, the irony of this line says a great deal. Perhaps it's highlighting the fact that the mother has better recovered from the pangs of birth than the father. Or perhaps it's an allusion to the dangerous limits of human exploration, only this time the unwelcoming frontiers are the internal galaxies (for a visual articulation of this same idea, see Darren Aronofsky's underrated film The Fountain). Whether this was Barnes' intent or not, he offers a poignant proverb.

The album's best song is the twelve-minute downer "The Past Is A Grotesque Animal." Not since Nirvana's "All Apologies" has a songwriter matched Kurt Cobain's ability to turn the disappointment and dislocation of celebrity life into such vivid, self-destructive poetry. But the tattered images that tumble through "Grotesque Animals" no-nonsense melodies come pretty damn close. Barnes wrote this song while on national tour, during which he and his wife legally separated. Nina and Alabee returned to Norway. He confesses he "went through this hedonistic period of heavy drinking" in attempts to forget how much he missed his wife and newborn daughter. He admitted there's "no fulfillment in that lifestyle," and this song makes his comment utterly believable. With a mash-up of serene guitars and angry, forward marching electro-drums competing in the background, "Animal" begins: "The Past is a grotesque animal/and in its eye you see how completely wrong you can be." He stands numb before a world where nature constantly defeats itself, thinking, "The sun is out/it melts the snow that fell yesterday/makes you wonder why it bothered." In response to history's scrutinizing eye and nature's self-defeating cruelty, the narrator spends the rest of the song consciously attempting to "author his own disaster." He escapes into past haunts. Squires "the first cute girl" he meets to a Swedish festival where they discuss French author George Bataille. This brief courtship, and perhaps the culture-shift the festival temporarily creates, reminds the narrator of his family overseas and, shamefully, how much he needs them. Bemoaning questions ensue. He asks, "how can I explain I need you here and not here too?" Loneliness soon turns to anger. Sirens bellow in the background. He and his new friend march further into their fight against the judgment of history. But this fight soon becomes less a battle march and more outright self-destruction. As he yells, "let's just have some fun/let's tear this shit apart/let's tear the fucking house apart/let's tear our fucking bodies apart/but let's just have some fun." Allow me to briefly interject my own opinion. Midway through, the song becomes so depressing and internal that one wonders whether Barnes' has stared inward for too long. It's the only point in the album that I'm tempted to give a negative critique (and oddly enough, it occurs in one of best song I've heard in five years.) But at one point he makes a comment so pitiful and absurd that it transcends all "emo" categories. He sings, "somehow you've red rovered the Gestapo circling my heart/and nothing can defeat you/no death, no ugly world." To be honest, I'm not sure what to think of this line. Maybe he's highlighting how violent too much "naval gazing" can be. Or perhaps the struggle of being separated from his family was so horrific that Holocaust images seemed most fitting. I'd like to know his exact intent. But frankly, using symbols representative of the systematic annihilation of an entire race of people to illustrate an emotional struggle seems troublesome, to say the least. And one could rightfully question whether Barnes has, in this line, fallen victim to the very "indie-rock" melodrama so much of the album is reacting against. But as the song progresses, I have a hunch that he may have been trying to make that point... that he too is capable of suffering for fashion, crying to be seen. Who knows. Regardless, such questionable lyrics do not overshadow the songs poignancy. Furthermore, a sudden surprise of hope at the conclusion suggests a reunion between him and his family (which, thankfully, did happen). Here he says, "I'm so touched by your goodness/you make me feel so criminal/How do you keep it together?/ I'm unraveled/but you know, no matter where we are we're always touching by underground wires." In a song so dark it feels like it might burst into an Apocalypse, this little flicker of light has the relief of a warm hug.

There are other great songs that could be further expounded upon with great interest. But I'd just assume leave the rest for the listeners to think about and discuss. Seriously, this album is tremendous. Though heavy with sadness and demanding of patient listeners, contemplating the richness therein is, to say the least, rewarding. There are few albums where listeners become learners. of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? is one of these rare exceptions, and one of the best albums I've heard in years. Seriously.

Hissing Fauna isn't just an angry finger waving in the face of indie-rock or even the poetry of a man's emotional descent. Much more, it reflects the need to get away from familiar surroundings once in a while. And in doing so, Barnes is able to voice frustrations that the majority of his listeners have also felt. But aside from the album's social critiques, let's not forget the reason why Nina and Kenneth Barnes chose to get away in the first place. They did so for the sake of their baby's health. Now that's the kind of selfless act that might inspire someone to step out of their Livejournal trappings.

When the time is right, I hope of Montreal will try venturing back to their communal origins. But in the meantime, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? has plenty to teach those willing to listen.

-Justin Stover

Track Listing:
1. Suffer For Fashion
2. Sink The Seine
3. Cato As A Pun
4. Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse
5. Gronlandic Edit
6. Sentence Of Sorts In Kongsvinger, A
7. Past Is A Grotesque Animal, The
8. Bunny Ain't No Kind Of Rider
9. Faberge Falls For Shuggie
10. Labyrinthian Pomp
11. She's A Rejecter
12. We Were Born The Mutants Again With Leafling

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