Album Review: The Library Is On Fire – Halcyon & Surrounding Areas

Music culture follows a circular path. When synth pop and glam rock got huge in the 80s, bands like R.E.M. and later Nirvana were there to beat the pretty boys back. Pop is again on a similar trajectory, as overproduced and indistinct EDM acts have dominated popular music’s landscape for the past couple of years.

The blowback is getting louder and louder, and if nothing else, The Library Is On Fire’s new LP “Halcyon And Surrounding Areas”, is loud. It was largely recorded on 4-track cassette in a loft in Bushwick (stop me if you’re heard this one before) in an attempt to capture the essence of the lo-fi glory days.

Did the guys succeed? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. At its best, like on standout track “Hey Snowflake”, TLIOF sound like a prog-rock Guided By Voices. At worst (which doesn’t happen that much), the appetite for noise obstructs the music. The rhythm section and vocals are in a constant competition for dominance of the midrange, introducing an unnecessary muddiness that hinders listener engagement on the first couple of listens.

It takes a few runs through this album before the musical ideas fall into place. “1913”, the only track that could be described as “catchy”, bounces through a Desaparecidos style instrumental and a vocal line littered with what must be intentionally obscure cultural references.

Unfortunately, TLIOF indulges in the type of reverb-philia which interferes with melodic immediacy. Late in the album, particularly on “Halcyon Daze”, the reverb is toned down (say, from 100% to 70%), giving the 6/8 dirge vitality that the rest of the album lacks. Following in this vein, album closer “Girl” features backwards guitar and a comprehensible vocal melody. The doubled lead vocal sounds straight out of The Beatles’ “Revolver” and hopefully is representative of the direction the band will go on future albums.

Little here is going to grab you right away. This album isn’t focused on hooks. “Halcyon And Surrounding Areas” is an amalgam of influential rock acts with defining elements missing. There’s Guided By Voices, but without the enticing melodies. There’s Television, but without the precise guitar attack. The Library Is On Fire have a great concept, but they need to avoid indulging in noise-rock excess and refine their arrangements and recording. It doesn’t have to be pristine, but it has to be more direct.

Are there things to like here? Absolutely. “1913” would fit nicely on a college radio station. “Hey Snowflake” is an awesome song, and an encouraging sign of what the band can when they make an effort to rein in their noisier tendencies. Fans of Guided By Voices, Television, The Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, and Deer Hunter would do well to check this out.

Rating: 6.5/10

Should I Listen: If you’re a fan of the lo-fi or noise, definitely give it a few spins.

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