With such a lush, rich, intricate and distinct sound being so well defined across early singles and 2008’s eponymous debut LP, the most obvious hazard for Rob Barber and Mary Pearson trading under the name of High Places could have been to lapse lazily into repetitious formula. Thankfully, it’s something the duo conscientiously avoid doing with this second proper album.
Building on the two brilliant between-albums tracks released last year – the digital-only single “I Was Born” and the epic split-12” piece “Late Bloomer” – Barber and Pearson have found a way to widen their sonic reach whilst adding a more magnified sense of focus. Throughout High Places vs. Mankind the two further unravel as well as expand their influences and open-up their compact electronic world to include more live instrumentation and more upfront organic vocals. Therefore, this sophomore set divides itself broadly between deeper experimental cuts and more direct art-pop nuggets.
In the latter body of tracks, there are some truly deliciously melodic hook-sinkers. The sublime “On Giving Up” could be a dream collaboration between Four Tet, mid-’80s New Order and Vanishing Point-era Primal Scream, with Pearson’s childlike vocals finally pushed confidently to the fore. Elsewhere, the cherishable “Constant Winter” chimes and rumbles with a beatific middle-eastern shimmer laced with a dreamy Hacienda club haze. “On A Hill In A Bed On A Road In A House” takes the twosome’s twee-pop streak into a more mature direction, worthy of cross-referencing with latter-day Animal Collective. “The Most Beautiful Name” even makes a leftward stab at dub-reggae without tripping-up on a pile of borrowed Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry 45s.
For those more at home in the more defiantly globalised art-house realms of the High Places kingdom, there is also plenty to wander around and get lost in. Most alluring in this respect, is the towering triptych of the eerie tropicalia-tinged “She’s A Wild Horse,” the murky wateriness of “The Channon” and the tremendous This Mortal Coil-indebted “Canada,” which collectively demonstrate that Pearson and Barber are serious sonic sculptures not just Pro-Tooling chancers with eclectic record collections. This feeling is reinforced even further with the mesmeric dronescape of “Drift Slayer,” which imagines John Cale lending his most avant-garde skills to Bardo Pond.
There is still some future danger for High Places’ next long-player, in balancing a unique identity with a wandering ear. But on the evidence of the gem-packed High Places vs. Mankind, it’s a challenge that will be relished and hopefully overcome with gilded aplomb. In the interim, this is another succcesful bout-winner from two very strong talents.
“On Giving Up” by High Places