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No New Abnormal

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A Richly Detailed, Psychedelic Layer Cake From Polish Rockers the White Kites

The White Kites‘ previous album Missing was a mix of spot-on 60s and 70s art-rock and psychedelia. Their latest release, Devillusion – streaming at Bandcamp – has more of a 70s vibe. David Bowie is the obvious reference point, with echoes of the Beatles, ELO and even Jethro Tull as well as artsy 90s bands like Pulp. The group’s playful sense of humor often masks a dark undercurrent. This is a long record, fourteen tracks of catchy, purist tunesmithing, outside-the-box sonics and strange interludes, best appreciated as a cohesive whole.

They open the album with Spinning Lizzie, a Bowie-esque take on funk, the guitars of Przemek Piłaciński and Bartek Woźniak flaring over the squiggles of Jakub Lenarczyk’s keys and bassist Marysia Białota’s overdubbed combo organ. Frontman Sean Palmer delivers a deadpan account of an increasingly thorny acid trip in the second track, Rather Odd over Lenarczyk’s stately piano and organ swirls

With its ba-bump noir cabaret phantasmagoria, Not a Brownie is just as surreal, especially with the spacy breakdown in the middle. Paweł Betley’s flute flits over drummer Jakub Tolak’s steady Penny Lane beat throughout the cheery Warsaw Summer. Frozen Heartland could be ELO in a particularly lush, wistful moment, circa 1977: “Come back!” is the mantra.

Rising from a blippy bounce to far more serious, Dragon is a knowing parable about the kind of big, unexpected payoff that you might encounter if you keep your mind open. The band go back to a carnivalesque pulse for the album’s fleeting title track, then blend pouncing Bowie rock with crazed atmospherics in Viral Spiral.

Białota’s Rhodes mingles uneasily with the simmering guitars in Blurred, a portrait of a superman which may have sarcastic political subtext. Ola Bilińska sings the miniature Mysteries in the Sky over a twinkling backdrop of electric piano and lush acoustic guitars. Then the band pick up the pace with QRMA, shifting between watery chorus-box-driven late Beatles and skittish glamrock.

Palmer intones an eco-disaster warning over a deep-space soundscape in Goodbye Gaia. Mother Mars is a logical segue, a broodingly waltzing art-rock anthem: if the White Kites got it right, we’re looking at Life on Mars, or bust. They wind up the album with the slow, immersive, guardedly hopeful ballad Fallen Star. The level of craft and subtle detail on this album is even more amazing considering how rock albums are made these days – and how few of them have been released this year.

The White Kites Aren’t Missing Anything, Psychedelically Speaking

Imagine if Ian Anderson had a thing for psychedelic pop music instead of heavy blues. That’s what Warsaw-based band the White Kites evoke. Pawel Betley’s pretty much omnipresent flute in tandem with Jakub Lenarczyk’s keyboards gives their album Missing a period-perfect 1968 feel. If the idea of a mashup of the Pretty Things and early Jethro Tull doesn’t scare you off, you’ll love this band. Their sound is retro in every possible way: they absolutely nail their vintage melodic tropes, keyboard and amp settings. Much as this album is all about catchy hooks, there’s a trippy undercurrent that sometimes takes everything in its tow, then eventually lets some familiar, comforting structure bubble to the surface once again. There’s also a meandering lyrical theme on the subject of absence, which may or may not carry some symbolic weight: it’s hard to tell. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.

The centerpiece of the album’s carnivalesque opening track, predictably titled Arrival, is a menacingly swirling funeral organ solo. There are also echoes of Brazilian-tinged American pop from the 60s as well as British glamrock from five years later, or Jacco Gardner in particularly amped-up mode. Track two, The Foreigner morphs from jazzy chamber pop to slithery, jangly art-rock in a Nektar vein. Stowaway Sylvie, a twisted, metaphorically-loaded seafaring tale, brings back that awesome funeral organ: “Reading the stars won’t help me know where we are,” frontman Sean Palmer laments.

Percival Buck has a sarcastic, satirical Ray Davies vaudeville pop flavor; then the song picks up with an anthemic Abbey Road vibe. Much as it may be derivative to the extreme, Beyond the Furthest Star is irresistibly fun. Mellotrons! Circus imagery! Oscillating synths, twinkling neoromantic piano, you name a stoner art-rock device, they manage to cram it in here. By contrast, Should You Wait is more sprightly and pop-oriented, with guy/girl vocals: “Though dawn is anew, my dose shall be complete,” the guy asserts.

Turtle’s Back seems to capture the moment when that dose is complete beyond any doubt: an atmospherically crescendoing keyboard-versus-keyboard interlude and watery Leslie speaker guitar help complete the picture where “we’ll be leaving soon, but not from the room.” When Will May Return is where the trip gets dicey, pensive folk-rock giving way to glam and then a soaring, orchestrated grandeur underscoring what seems like a variation on the Persephone myth – or maybe an eco-disaster parable. Clown King is where the Tull comparisons really come in, a sarcastic anthem told from the point of view of a selfish tyrant, lit up with twin flutes, baroque keys and then an unexpectedly balmy interlude. The title track is an apprehensive piano waltz: “Paper saviors get burned, and your ship is no ark,” Palmer warns bitterly. The album ends up with Farewell, tremoloing organ and bluesy lead guitar evoking a period-perfect early 70s backdrop for a brooding contemplation of the ravages of time. Snobs may turn up their noses at this, saying that it’s all been done before – and it has, but never quite this way. And for real fans of classic 60s psychedelia, this is a feast.