Concept albums are typically high-risk ventures of ambition battling execution. For every concept album that hangs together as a single work (The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Prince Paul’s Prince Among Thieves) there is an equal number that fail to cohere into either a narrative piece or a collection of individually strong tracks. Too often, the artist’s ambition isn’t enough to handle the weight of their own pretension. The majority of concept albums therefore become semi-connected series of episodes advancing a tangential story, leaving them to survive solely on the strength of their individual songs.
While the concept and story of Cael Anton’s concept album, The Architect Becomes a Tree, gets a little murky at times, the songs themselves are more than strong enough to propel the listen through each of its songs and back.
Almost every one of Architect’s ten tracks serve as individually evolving pieces where echoing vocals over strumming guitars lurch into hard rock distortion, simplistic electronic drums spin into dense, rapid loops and claustrophobic atmospheric sounds open into triumphant relief into a dizzying, off-kilter merry-go-round. It’s quite a journey. With few exceptions, where the song begins is not where the sound ends, and it’s dazzling to see how each piece of music progresses from one phrase to another, be it the slow, natural addition of “Cripple Up” or the sudden jolt of “Into the Unmapped Space.”
Anton’s vocals recall Mike Patton’s Mr. Bungle-style middle range with a very slight tinge of David Bowie. At times, the voice seems the calm eye of the sonic storm raging around it. Anton uses a certain degree of pitch and dramatics but mostly keeps the vocals in a controlled range that rarely, if ever, strains or sharpens despite the pulse of the music, making the few moments when it does strain seem particularly significant. There is a feeling of story throughout, however the lyrics are often too muddled to understand, making the overall themes and narrative hard to follow and the vocals best seen as another among the vast array of sounds on display throughout the album.
From its mechanical, enclosed beginning to its surprisingly open, naturalistic, gospel-inspired end, The Architect Becomes a Tree is a surprisingly confident piece of work. While people who prefer their music as predictable background noise may find the shifts unsettling, those who appreciate growth and progression in their music will find a lot to enjoy with successive plays. Architect is the rare album where ambition, and even a little pretention, works completely in its favor. [subscribe2]