[25th June 2013]
01. Future Warrior
03. Mission Sunset
04. Shortwave Radio
06. Antarctic Handshake
There was something simultaneously exciting and disappointing about the announcement of the final line-up of Palms. It was exciting because it heralded the return of three-fifths of ISIS, joining forces with Chino Moreno of Deftones fame – but this excitement was somewhat tempered by the fact that you didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce what their self-titled debut was likely to sound like.
It would certainly be fair to say that the level of expectation surrounding Palms in the run-up to this release has been incredibly high – to the point where fully meeting them may well have become impossible irrespective of the actual quality of the tunes themselves.
And initial listens, especially for long-term ISIS fans, are likely to be characterised by an over-whelming sense of anti-climax. For these people – myself included – there’s a gaping hole in the sound of Palms; a hole that is Aaron Turner and Mike Gallagher-shaped.
Opening track “Future Warrior” doesn’t help the cause. It slips into a gentle groove that could easily be an off-cut from the Wavering Radiant sessions, before Chino’s trademark breathless tones lay an almost sing-song melody on top of them. This delicate vocal line gives the track a similar feel to a Jane’s Addiction ballad. So far so good.
However, the absence of two main ISIS guitarists is keenly felt as the song attempts to kick up a dynamic gear for the chorus. Like eating vegetarian bolognese when you were expecting beef, all the pieces are apparently there, but it lacks bite.
Clearly, what is needed is some attitude adjustment from the listener. It takes at least a couple of spins to get over the fact this really isn’t a new ISIS album and to judge Palms on its own merits.
But the crushingly disappointing thing is that even after pushing past one’s unmet preconceptions, there is still a weak link in the chain – and it is Chino.
The other members acquit themselves well enough: Jeff Caxide‘s warm, bright bass tone and innovative use of his instrument’s upper registers greet the listener likes an old friend, as do Aaron Harris‘ taut drumbeats and snappy fills – and for all the difficulty Bryant Clifford Meyer has completely filling the shoes of absent ex-bandmates, there’s no denying the fact that the trio are more than capable of creating a spacious, dreamy soundscape.
But Chino’s performance feels peculiarly lacklustre. Even with the best part of twenty years to get used to his rather singular approach to melody, some significant passages simply don’t work.
The whole album feels like the instrumental tracks were completed before being handed to Chino to add his parts, and the join between the two is all too visible. Often, his parts feel hurriedly written, and whilst they do contain some memorable moments, they are more than equaled by forgettable ones.
But, perhaps more importantly, in the apparent hurry to lay the parts down, he has forgotten to simply shut up once in a while. Chino is singing far more than he is not on a release where the instrumentation is crying out to be given room to breathe. This had the effect of smoothing out some of the dynamic peaks and troughs which, had they been left in tact, could have made this a much more absorbing listen.
These kinds of teething issues are fairly normal for new bands. Under normal circumstances, it would be fair to just console yourself with an assessment of “good first effort, hope for something more special next time”, but the difficulty here is that Palms, with this line-up, can only ever be a side-show to the Deftones main event; a problem compounded further by the existence of Chino’s †††. So will Palms ever really get the attention they deserve?
The band’s situation feels similar to that faced by the bulk of the musicians in Mahumodo following their untimely demise. With the creative engine-room of their past endeavours setting up as *shels, the remaining members regrouped as Devil Sold His Soul. It took them at least a couple of albums to really find their own voice. Chino’s hectic schedule may well hinder this exploration in ways the band may not have had to deal with had they gone with a singer without an existing portfolio, or even remained purely instrumental.
This is all particularly maddening because when it does work – as it does on the hypnotic “Shortwave Radio” especially – it is really very good. But, in the main, Palms is just…nice. Which does rather find it damned with faint praise.
So where does this leave us? The bottom line is that Palms is a slice of gentle, soothing post-rock that would serve well as background music for late-night unwinding. The sad truth is that the pairing of ISIS and Deftones is better in concept than it is in execution in this instance.
Maybe listeners without long-standing affections for the musicians involved will have a better time with the tracks but, for this listener in particular, Palms is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.