As much as I adore virtuosity and complex arrangements, I also admire good, simple songwriting. Very often we’re given one or the other by bands, and while that’s fine, the most respectable acts fuse them. With Simulacrum, Distant Lights has done just that. Sometimes there is a clear separation between the two, but for the most part, the album is an enjoyable hybrid.
Distant Lights is a quintet from Texas which prides itself as “…a union of schooled and seasoned musicians with high ideals and extreme musical standards.” The group consists of cellist Jon Dexter, lead vocalist Gabriel Fry, songwriter and guitarist Gaelan Bellamy, bassist Sam Marshall, and drummer Chris Hynes. Together, they create music that’s new because of how it’s combined.
The verse of “Dystopia” is fairly common; a decent melody and clean guitar riffs. What keeps it interesting is the use of cello throughout to give it an orchestral feeling. Also, the chorus is very catchy, and Fry’s voice is a great blend of power and vulnerability. He is a great singer. The track also has a pretty heavy middle section and the closing moments slow down for sad harmonies. This track foreshadows how the album will shift between sparse songwriting and kick ass jams.
“Unity,” for some reason, reminds me of Incubus…only much better. There is a cool echo on the guitar and nice atmospheric touches, but overall it’s a more average song than the last. That said the passion Fry puts in makes it worthwhile. “The Glitch” begins with a nice piano treatment before harmonics, a steady drum beat and funky bass follow Fry’s voice. Again, this is a fairly standard pop song with impressive harmonies and string use, and thus the opening track is definitely the best so far. But suddenly things get heavier in the middle with a metallic bass sound and intricate guitar playing, which leads into another solo piano section. Things build back up again to a very crushing assault before the track ends with a cello solo (very uncommon for a standard rock band, which these guys aren’t). With these three songs, listeners may think they know what to expect from Simulacrum, but they don’t. The next track will blow your mind.
“Artifice” shows the truly progressive rock side of Distant Lights. It still has vocals, but the focus is much more on how creative and technical they can make the music. Actually, the verse and chorus isn’t anything special, but it doesn’t hurt anything either. There’s lightening fast time signature changes, guitar and cello solos, and very elaborate rhythms. If the opening tracks were better versions of everyday pop bands, this is Distant Lights combining Led Zeppelin, The Mars Volta and Curved Air. It would’ve been better as an instrumental intermission, but it’s still very impressive as is.
The tension filled, clever interplay of drums, guitar and cello that produce “Monolith” grabs your ears and never let go. Fry uses his voice only as wallpaper, occasionally springing up to complement the danger. It’s an apocalyptic chaos; the final battle between good and evil, and any fan of the heavy prog from the 70s will enjoy it. There are tons of little riffs by the strings that accent the other instruments, symbolizing the most affective moments of catastrophe. Moving back into normal song structures, “Patterns On The Rise” also brings back the unusually memorable hook that the second and third songs were missing. The short piano part that whispers behind Fry is haunting and an example of a subtle touch that greatly improves a track. The backing vocals aid the main one to create an encompassing sound, and the spacey, sad middle section is surprisingly moving. It sounds a bit like classic Genesis, which is never a bad thing. After some OK songs and two very tricky tracks, Simulacrum once again combines the two to great effect.
Fry continues to belt out his sorrow with “Grass,” which continues the trend of cello and clean guitar note accompaniment. It’s honestly another fairly straightforward, uninvolving piece (though, as usual, the passion in the vocals makes it at least valuable), and the only really interesting part is the short, prominent cello part near the end. Things get better with “Manifest,” which opens with some spacey effects (think Rush’s infamous “2112”) before another tricky guitar riff allows for more walking bass and syncopation. This song is more memorable, varied and unique than the last one because all the elements come together and separate at the right moments. The effects continue as the song crescendos in the middle and the double tracked guitar solo is very well done. You’ll hear new things with each listen.
“Metamorphosis” use various synthesized sounds (similar to what’s used at the end of Dark Side Of The Moon) and aerial ambiance to keep itself new. Again, the powerhouse of harmonies overwhelms listeners, and the riffs near the end are definitely reminiscent of Tool. It fades into closer “Emptiness And Ever,” which features a beautiful opening of building, emotional keyboards and a heartbroken, piercing guitar line. I must point out again, no matter how redundant, how powerful Fry’s voice is when stacked upon itself several times. The bridge allows the piano and guitar to back up the melody with some wonderful, simple ideas. By the end, every part meets to craft a loud, meaningful closure.
Simulacrum is a rare commodity. It successfully welds commercial pop melodies with the instrumentation and dynamics of progressive rock. The result is a consistently catchy and pleasant indie rock album with prog rock accompaniment and arrangement. Distant Lights jumps from subtle pop beauty to astonishing complex disturbance with ease. There are only a few missed opportunities (which are only considered so because of how good the rest is), and when they occur, the next track always makes up for it. It’s a sound you should definitely hear, and more bands should try to create.