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Album Review: MAJOR PARKINSON Valesa – Chapter 1: Velvet Prison

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Norwegian septet Major Parkinson is a band without many stylistic limitations or rivals. Despite channeling artists such as Tom Waits, Diablo Swing Orchestra, Mr. Bungle, uneXpect, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, theirs is truly an unparalleled brand of experimental rock/metal. To that end, their commitment to delivering increasingly intrepid, cinematic, resourceful, and extraordinary albums culminated in their fourth studio LP—conceptual opus Blackbox—being a bona fide work of genius (and one of the best albums of 2017).

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Clearly, they had a lot to live up to in creating follow-up Valesa – Chapter 1: Velvet Prison. Rather than repeat themselves, however, they made the bold decision to once again venture into considerably new (and risky) territory. Whereas Blackbox decorated its macabre prog metal base with healthy doses of dark ambient/electronica and classical flamboyance, Valesa – Chapter 1 casts a few of those elements into a “neon haze of progressive synth pop/rock” (as the official description goes).

Thus, it’s a much brighter and more accessible collection that still houses the group’s trademark sophistication, variety, and attention to instrumental and narrative detail. It doesn’t top the bizarre brilliance of Blackbox—I mean, how could it?—but that doesn’t mean it’s a disappointment. On the contrary, the record is wonderfully inventive, catchy, and reinvigorating, adding extra dimensions to Major Parkinson’s one-of-a-kind magic.

The band openly celebrates their mission to use both the sounds and “political backdrop of the 1980s” to “tap into the zeitgeist of the period in human history that proved tantamount in shaping our world.” They continue: “From the halls of an abandoned American high school to the wine-stained head of Gorbachev — the album evokes an all-encompassing feeling of uneasy nostalgia, like humanity collectively looking back in time with a pair of cracked, rose-tinted glasses.” The result, inimitable lead vocalist Jon Ivar Kollbotn rightly claims, is “synth anthems set in a disco of nuclear anxiety.”

Perhaps the best example of that chemistry is summery lead single “Saturday Night,” a shimmering yet sinister musical party about—Kollbotn notes—“staying in the moment.” Backed by glitzy tones and danceable beats, the juxtaposition of Kollbotn’s downtrodden existential verses and violinist/vocalist Claudia Cox’s angelic upbeat choruses is wholly captivating and inspired. As usual, their voices combine in a sublime mixture of light and dark, good and evil, and the surrounding arrangement fluctuates with just as much precision, diversity, and ultimately, triumph. Like the bastard child of Thomas Dolby and Type O Negative, it’s a masterful composition that’s sure to get stuck in your head.

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Fortunately, a handful of other pieces provide the same sort of genre-fusing radiant splendor. Following a traditionally off-kilter prologue (“Goodbye Blue Monday”), opening piano ballad “Behind the Next Door” is lusciously bittersweet, oscillating between isolated introspection and full-bodied orchestral empowerment to enrapture the listener. The faster and lighter—but still quite theatrical—“Live Forever” seems plucked right out of 1983, as does reflective ode “The Room” (so much so that it seems directly influenced by Cyndi Lauper’s lovely “Time After Time”). Add in foreboding closer “Heroes” and some madcap digital segues (“Intermezzo,” “Lemon Symphony,” and “Posh-Apocalypse”) and you have a delightful amalgamation of synth pop decadence and characteristic zaniness.

Major Parkinson’s recognizable templates permeate certain portions of the LP in even more surprising ways, too. In particular, “Sadlands” evokes mid-1970s Bruce Springsteen thanks to its heartrending operatic soliloquy (which is adorned by audience noise and warm piano chords). Then, “Jonah” coats its stern wistfulness in the gospel luminousness of Portugal. The Man’s “So American” before “This House” exudes nightmarish chamber electronica. Oh, and the penultimate “Fantasia Me Now!” is a horn-filled pop duet (with tinges of funk and disco) not unlike something from Peter Gabriel’s seminal So or Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach.

Valesa – Chapter 1: Velvet Prison doesn’t outdo Blackbox, but it’s clearly not trying to. Instead, it does something arguably more important: it takes Major Parkinson to exciting and courageous new places without abandoning what makes them so singular and admirable. Far too few artists are willing—or able—to legitimately throw caution to the wind in an attempt to merge their core identity with a wildly different one-off approach. However, Major Parkinson do precisely that from beginning to end, challenging themselves and their audience by riskily (and skillfully) realizing their retro ambitions.

One can only imagine how breathtakingly adventurous Chapter 2 will be if and when it arrives.  

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