If you’re going to write lushly orchestrated art-rock, you might as well go all the way and open your debut album with a seventeen-minute epic. That’s what the Arcane Insignia did. The first track on their first release A Flawed Design – up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download – begins with a gently fingerpicked waltz that gives way to pulsing, trickily rhythmic bursts – from violin, cello and acoustic guitar rather than synth and Les Pauls played through Marshall stacks. From there the band make their way gracefully through ambience punctuated by alternately delicate and emphatic guitar as the strings – Noah Heau on cello and Tina Chang-Chien on viola – swirl, and hover, and burst. Rainy-day music has never sounded so stormy. Imagine ELO’s first album beefed up by an entire symphony orchestra, playing classic Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. There’s no other band on the planet who sound like this.
Now where are they playing this titanic, dynamically shifting stuff tonight? Madison Square Garden? Bowery Ballroom? That hideous basketball arena in Cobble Hill? Nope. They’re playing the Delancey – which actually has an excellent PA system. Cover is $10.
“Searching the playground for what we could obtain,” frontman Alejandro Saldarriaga Calle sings cryptically as the opening track rises and then recedes – the way his long scream gets picked up by the strings, and then how he picks it up again is one of the year’s most adrenalizing recorded moments. The gusts and eventual swoops from the strings keep it from being anticlimactic.
Architects of a Flawed Design begins with carefully tiptoeing staccato strings and guitar harmonics, “The windows are closed…how is anyone supposed to enter? Calle ponders as the music grows more kinetic, a titanic choir of wordless vocals – Martha Stella Calle, Allie Jessing and Jamel Lee, multitracked many times over – rising over chopping guitar chords and uneasily lingering strings.
Chapter 9 – Trail of Extinguished Suns (that’s the third track) is more darkly phantasmagorical, Calle’s voice rising higher, the song punctuated by momentary pauses amid the breakers crashing beneath the relentless overcast skies above. As in the other tracks, his dissociative lyrics echo the title’s grim implications. while the alternating long and leaping tones of his voice serves as one of the band’s instruments as much as they carry the lyrics.
Ominous folk noir guitar riffs and swlring strings give way to a mighty pulse as Cardinal and Subliminal gets underway, then the music hits an uneasy dance fueled by the cello. They bring it full circle with a wistful variation at the end.
Obelisk, a diptych, begins with Fallen Shell, stark cello underpinning sparsely pensive guitar, rising to an emphatic waltz anchored by nimbly tumbling percussion and then back down, with a relentless angst and a final machinegunning drive that could be Iron Maiden…acoustic.
The dramatic vocals, suspenseful pauses, fierce strumming and gritty strings of part two, Liquid Skies, bring to mind 70s British cult favorites the Doctors of Madness at their most symphonic.
Gemini Cycle begins out of a wry segue. Bracingly soaring cello joins a balletesque guitar/cello duet (tons of overdubs here), then the band build the album’s most baroque, lush crescendos, balanced by moody, calm, overcast interludes and another gargantuan choral segment. There’s also a rather anguished, waltzing bonus track, Maleguena Salerosa, spiced with tango allusions and delicious chromatics. Although this storm is so pervasive and unrelenting that after awhile all the songs start to blend into each other, it’s a hell of a song! Count this as the best debut rock record of 2018 so far.