The Great Drab Majesty Debate
“Modern Mirror” (Great! if you’ve never heard Drab Majesty before…)
It’s finally here. The new album by Drab Majesty “Modern Mirror” dropped on July 12 after two years of waiting for the next installment of this essentially trendsetting band that has mastered the retro-aesthetic. But what’s all this? Listeners can’t seem to agree about how they feel, and we’ve heard everything from ‘groundbreaking’ to ‘disappointing’ to describe this new effort. So what’s really going on here? Let’s address why there are different points of view, and why it’s all correct.
There is a divide between fans of Drab Majesty and their expectations that were set on Drab’s first two albums “Careless” and “The Demonstration”, and non-fans/newcomers to the band. Additionally, there is a massive divide between the goth audience (which accumulated in numbers during the release of the first two albums) and the indie/wave audience (which possibly has a larger, newer following and is growing).
In what turns out to be great news for the band, their popularity is on the rise. The latest music videos for singles off of “Modern Mirror” - Ellipsis, Oxytocin, and Out of Sequence - have garnered much attention, and their North American tour later this year sees them finally headlining. And who can forget their appearance on “Last Call with Carson Daily” in November of 2018? All great strides just within the last year.
With the release of “Modern Mirror”, reviews were fast to hit. Mainstream alternative audiences have been pouring out a barrage of high-praise for the album which seems to break new ground by incorporating 80’s New Wave elements and creating something modern and new. Fans of the darker aesthetic and especially those within the gothic community felt the opposite, already aware that incorporating 80’s elements for a retro darkwave sound is far from new or groundbreaking. Many felt incomplete and unfulfilled with the new offerings on “Modern Mirror” because of its significant drift from the darker sounds of the previous releases, especially their debut album “Careless”. As a result, there are two very disconnected kinds of reviews being published. It’s important to realize the reviewers all have different perspectives and expectations.
A Study in Pink
L.A. based Drab Majesty formed as the solo project of Andrew Clinco AKA the enigmatic Deb Demure. Clinco developed the idea for Drab Majesty while he was drumming for experimental rock band Marriages. In 2011 Clinco adopted the alter ego of Deb Demure after feeling as though his solo music was received and played through him. In 2015 Drab Majesty signed to Dais Records and released their debut album “Careless”. In 2016 Mona D joined Deb and they later released “The Demonstration” in early 2017.
Here at Obscura Undead the anticipation for their third album after two years was real. We announced when the pre-release dropped, were ecstatic over the variety of colored vinyl available for pre-order, and watched as they were snapped up and sold out like hot cakes. We rejoiced when we heard the first single Ellipsis and have been dwelling on it and spinning it at our post-punk/darkwave nights. A few months ago, we were graced with another drop, the track Long Division (audio only).
But the teasers didn’t stop there. Within the last month, two new music videos were posted: the gorgeous Oxytocin; and the stupid long Out of Sequence just three days prior to album release. Four songs were pre-released to the public, out of an eight song album. With that kind of hype and anticipation the album needed to be excellent. And “Modern Mirror” is a decent solid effort - compared to other bands which have tried to accomplish the same style - but falls short in many ways.
“Modern Mirror” is more of a really good Indie alternative album, otherwise known as a watered-down flat darkwave effort. With this album, Drab Majesty has walked away from the darkwave and embraced the alternative. Was this the band’s slow progression all along, or will the band change up identities with each album much like David Bowie or the Beatles? It is possible the new popularity has affected the songwriting process and this more accessible set of songs is the new Drab Majesty future. It is also likely that it’s ‘just a phase’.
In order to breakdown further why a beautiful album isn’t enough, we would have to review what makes Drab Majesty different. Ultimately, their visual identity is just as important as their sound. It appears that Drab Majesty has of late made their identity inseparable from the retro-aesthetic; meaning that without seeing those beautifully lush visuals we’ve come to know and love, the songs themselves on “Modern Mirror” do not have a personality on their own.
This is evident in in the new album, which strays from the path previously set on “The Demonstration (2017)” and “Careless (2015)”. “Careless” had a gritty, raw organic, and deconstructed sound layered with lush atmospherics and flow - consistent with the imagery we were given at the time in previous music videos for The Foyer, The Heiress, and Unknown to the I.
“The Demonstration” was much more polished and cohesive than “Careless”, with a concept inspired by the Heaven’s Gate cult, among other things. Both albums were dark and elegant, gloomy and melancholy, a feast for a goth’s ears. These albums also had a clear sonic influence from Clan of Xymox, The Cure, and Cocteau Twins, but with wavey tunes and somber ballads that were uniquely their own. Every song on “Careless” had a unique life of its own, and “The Demonstration” was so well produced and mastered that it is hard to maintain that trajectory of excellence without redefining the sound. Fast forward to July 2019 and the release of “Modern Mirror”. It is still a great listen compared to other retro-inspired Indie/wave (Our best term for modern alternative revival) out at the moment, but it felt lacking compared to their back catalog.
Truth be told, the anticipation was still at its max during my first listen of the first track of the album. “Modern Mirror” opens with what may be the most chilling song on the album: A Dialogue.
The slow intro begins with heavy reverbed vocals and intricate guitar work layered with a singular synth line that builds in pressure as the song unfolds like a blossom. When that first drum beat hits a good three minutes into the album, the goosebumps are real. The song signifies what is to come - that this album may contain the best songs we will hear all year. But unfortunately the rest of the album doesn’t quite deliver to the level that was desired.
Ellipsis was the earliest pre-release track (May 2019), and after many listens it has aged beautifully. Personally, many of Drab Majesty’s tracks are better over time and need to ripen to the listener’s ears. In the best of cases, the tracks on this album do have brilliantly layered design, with intricate guitar-work and synth melodies that tie together seamlessly with the vocals. The issue with this type of intricate latticework of sounds is that with the faster than usual tempo of some tracks (e.g. Ellipsis at 155BPM), a lot of these elements are easily overlooked. Many tracks would almost be benefited by being slowed down. The Outside and Dolls in the Dark are possibly the better dance tracks on the album, keeping with the pace of Drab Majesty’s previous and most catchy tunes.
The vocals are traditionally Deb, but on many tracks his voice is lost in the atmospheric lush, a mastering choice which softens the crispness we had come to expect. Oxytocin and Long Division are decent melodies, again representing the mellower side of alternative pop. Perhaps the major difference is neither of these are sung by just Demure; Oxytocin has Mona D on vocals and on Long Division the chorus is shared with No Joy front-woman Jasamine White-Gluz. Both tracks, while having excellent melodies, are missing the bite and vocal confidence of this band’s other tracks.
Lastly, two more great highs of the album are Noise in the Void and Out of Sequence. Noise in the Void, perhaps my favorite track, is a gorgeously somber slow piece with intense hazey synths and echoey vocals that melt into the synth work. A dreamy, smooth ride. Out of Sequence, a long upbeat track, endcaps the album and feels out of sequence, as if it was intended to be in the middle of the album. Many fans agree that this is the best track on the album, with its uplifting sing a long chorus and airy synths despite being a needlessly long outro. This is one of many tracks embedded with levity, and left me longing for the darker sounds of the past. On the whole, the album itself is sunny in disposition, juxtaposed with lyrics on the darker side of human relationships.
Lyrically, “Modern Mirror” dwells on human relationships and how fragile and fleeting they are. For a good comparison, we strongly recommend Andrew Clinco’s other project VR SEX. Their debut album “Human Traffic Jam” (May 2019) is all about artificial relationships. The VR SEX album almost seems like the darker tracks that are missing from “Modern Mirror”.
Drab Majesty’s latest release does evoke a nostalgic emotional response, one we’ve felt before; it’s a drifting mellow buffet of sound, reminding me of summer Saturdays in the mid-80’s. The balance of New Wave elements woven into these modern revival tracks is skillfully done and none have mastered the retro-aesthetic quite like Drab Majesty. While these cutting ideas about relationships are predominantly dark, “Modern Mirror” itself seems more airy, mellow, as if becoming less offensive and easily digestible for it’s new found audience. I can only hope that this new era of Drab is fleeting, like the relationships described in the new songs and that eventually they will come back home to the gothic community where they were safely nestled and loved.
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