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Blackfield - Blackfield IV CD (album) cover




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2.74 | 172 ratings

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2 stars Blackfield IV arrives just two and a half years since the release of Welcome to My D.N.A., Blackfield's 3rd LP after a four year break and the album that marked the last true involvement of Steven Wilson as a fully-fledged member of the alternative pop (and prog-related by blood only) band. And it is sad reflection on this record that, whilst the two studio albums by Blackfield's former anchor man in the intervening period were released barely 18 months apart, both sold well and met widespread critical acclaim without feeling remotely rushed or devoid of new ideas or enthusiasm. Aviv Geffen, now the sole flag-bearer of the Blackfield name, had an extra 12 months to work on this new record and the results, if anything, seem more rushed and incomplete than anything that has come before. There is no doubting that Blackfield's strengths as a group were in the shared passion and enthusiasm of both Wilson and Geffen in what they were doing: crafting short, sharp and lush pop rock with an alternative twist and the odd progressive flourish. The contrast of these two musicians and writers in style and attitude worked to Blackfield's advantage and produced 2 very good albums (Blackfield I and Blackfield II), full of melancholy and melody, post-glam angst and optimism, soulful emotions and thinly-concealed cynicism. Blackfield could crank-out the heartfelt harmonies and then follow them immediately with spiky guitars and coarse defiance without breaking a sweat and could still maintain a consistent and recognisable tone throughout. Welcome to My D.N.A. was the first indicator that Wilson's focus was increasingly elsewhere, as was inevitably going to be the case for a man with surely more side-projects than any other (Even the far-more popular and well-known Porcupine Tree has had to sit in mothballs while Wilson's solo career goes from strength to strength). Only one song was written by the Englishman on that record, but his vocals were still prominent and the balance of the album was still fresh and featured plenty of well-judged alternative styling in songs such as "Go To Hell", "Zigota" and the excellent "Blood". Blackfield IV, however, offers little of what came before that was to be praised. Instead, Geffen has produced a very safe, cautious record that mines much of the tone and form of the previous albums lighter moments, and gives us very little contrast. "Pills" is the first song on the album, beginning proceedings on a very downbeat, cynical note. Wilson shares the vocal duties with Geffen here, but the song doesn't feel like a true opener and comes across as a pastiche of Blackfield's previous sceptical material. The guitar outro is a slightly offbeat touch, but is too little too late. "Springtime" follows this, and returns to the safe territory of watered-down melancholy, underscored by lush orchestral arrangements: it's a song that makes no apology for what it is and is probably the better for doing so. At two and half minutes long, however, this song lays down the marker for much of what is to follow and is the first instance of a troubling trend on the record. The 3rd track treads previously uncharted territory by boasting a guest vocalist for the first time in Blackfield's short history. Vincent Cavanagh, front man to Anathema (a band which I was previously not very familiar with) sings "X-Rays", an unashamed bowl of sickly pop balladry dripping with familiar strings and essence of late 90's valentine's day chart-toppers. Cavanagh negotiates some odd lyrics to pull off a fine performance and deliver a moving, emotive song that is both immensely soppy, but very hard to dislike at the same time: another clear characteristic of the album and another song clocking in at under 3 minutes. Any semblance of a vague promise, however, is swiftly dispelled by track 4, "Sense of Insanity". Here we have any notion of ambition and forging a new pathway suffocated by a song that was genetically engineered in Matrix-style bio-pods to tick as many Blackfield boxes as possible. No, it's not a bad song per se, but it's a construct of artificial origins. It's song designed to speak to the heart about passion and positivity, but it was forged in a vat of molten music by super-sophisticated computers, trying desperately to capture what it was like to be human and staggered by its failure to accomplish said task. "Firefly", on the other hand, is at least an enigma. Brett Anderson (frontman for Suede and The Tears) takes lead vocal duties, and, as with "X-Ray", it's an almost thankless task. Another lyrically unusual and awkward track struggles to find a sense of identity amidst a pensive and obscure vibe and, unlike "X-Ray", doesn't necessarily showcase the talents of the guest singer. Musically it's at least a little off-centre, but just as it is entering "Dissolving with the Night"-style instrumental territory it, like so much before and after, finishes abruptly, again at less than 3 minutes. Strangely enough, "The Only Fool Is Me", despite its length of less than two minutes, is one of the highlights of the album. Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev sings a gentle lullaby accompanied by harp and strings and, whilst it's over far too soon (as with everything else), it at least serves as a sweet and quirky burst of warmth and sunshine amidst a meandering record and a nice prelude to the album's centrepiece that follows. Track seven, "Jupiter", is everything that was, is and will be Blackfield, wrapped into an immaculately presented sugar coated confection. Steven Wilson delivers his only real prominent, solo vocal and sings of the same regret and melancholy that has served as the backbone to all previous Blackfield albums. The orchestral accompaniment is front and centre, complimenting a simple acoustic arrangement, and only the coldest heart could say they weren't slightly moved by the slickest and fluffiest of pop ballads. It's adorable and heartfelt, but also slightly repulsive and frustrating at the same time. As the standard-bearer for the album, it could have been so much more, and yet it is so persuasive in its integrity and relentlessness that it's impossible to hate. Two-thirds the way through the album, it's here where the ball is well and truly dropped. "Kissed by the Devil" begins abruptly and offers flashes of Radiohead and 90's alternate rock, but loses all momentum in a docile chorus. It has the makings of a decent 4 minute track, but it finds itself presented here as a pile of severed limbs rather than a complete human and it comes as no surprise when the fadeout begins at two-minutes and forty-seconds. At this point, one is inclined to wonder whether we are in on the joke or not. Is this some kind of elaborate test to establish what a listener is prepared so swallow and accept as a bona fide album? Is this an experiment in challenging the true perception of what constitutes an album (it's certainly the shortest album I own, by at least 5 minutes)? One can forgive an inauspicious opening if there is rewarding ending in the offing, but the marked deterioration in quality continues with "Lost Souls". Again, as with previous tracks, it is harmless and not immediately unlikeable or offensive to the ear. But the sixth average song out of nine is just going to come across as average and it's even worse when it sounds to all intents and purposes like a Manic Street Preachers song (even down to the vocals and the borrowed title); and it's a style of song the Welsh band do much better than this. "Faking", by this stage, is now the seventh average song out of ten and is very, very hard to care about in any shape and form. The thumbs are down by this point and a piano power ballad, no matter how reasonable it might be, is just not enough to get you out of the quagmire. The orchestra soars (yes, again), and the key changes to an even more uplifting tone? But it's too late. And then just when all hope is lost comes the closing track "After the Rain". At eighty-six seconds long, it's nowhere near enough to rescue a disappointing record, but, my-god, it's a flicker of what could have been? A throwaway, near-instrumental spin on chill-out drum & bass offers a coolness and pace-change that was sorely lacking previously. Even the orchestrations are understated and compliment the multi-tracked harmonies that echo elements of "Scars" from Blackfield's debut album. Blackfield IV is a sheep in wolf's clothing and a tame offering from a talented artist trying to forge a new path in the shadows of a more prominent brother. Even the album art (more akin to a Bass Communion album) deceives with how it promises something substantial and visceral. Like Radiohead's underwhelming King Of Limbs (at least given life live), there has been enough goodwill earned over the years to forgive one miss amidst many strikes, even for fans that tuned in initially just to sample another Steven Wilson side-project. There are definite signs of life amidst this wreckage and the true test will be whether Aviv Geffen can take the blows, go back to the drawing board and find true inspiration to rise again. Remember, this is a man responsible for songs of real worth and impact such as "Cloudy Now", "End of the World", "Dissolving with the Night", "Blood" and "Zigota" and his ability as a writer and performer can't be dismissed solely on one misfire. Everything that this band was, "they found it all in the Blackfield", and that is where Geffen must return to rediscover his true voice.
blueavenger | 2/5 |


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