In his 15-year run under the Of Montreal moniker, Kevin Barnes has wholeheartedly embraced artistic reinvention and development, traversing a wide swath of terrain that has seen his indie pop band delve into everything from vaudeville and twee to funk and glam rock. Arguably one of the most colorful characters in modern music, Barnes has assumed a chameleonic ability to constantly alter the trajectory of his aesthetic impulses; one minute he’s channeling the sexual provocations of Prince, the next it’s Syd Barrett-inspired psychedelia. It’s never been easy listening, but it also rarely fails to be entertainment of the highest order; sights and sounds as blissfully erratic as they are naively theatrical.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Barnes was talking up the companion EP to last fall’s False Priest before that record even hit shelves. While Priest played out like a perverted paean to old-school R&B and 1970’s funk, it was still – for Of Montreal, at least – a fairly digestible collection of songs; the band’s penchant for oddity and aberration was tempered by Jon Brion’s killer dancefloor production and exclusive guest appearances by divas Janelle Monáe and Solange Knowles. Though the newly released Controllersphere EP had its gestation and realization during the False Priest era, it’s evident that Barnes is once again looking to subvert expectations, this time delivering a 23-minute, 5-track album that is far less stylistically consistent than its predecessor.
Purportedly a folk album, Thecontrollersphere doesn’t exactly recall the pastoral reveries of Fleet Foxes or the sepia-toned charm of the Low Anthem; with the exception of the gentle acoustic strums of “Flunkt Sass vs. the Root Flume,” the EP is stockpiled with industrial noise and electronic anarchy. “Black Lion Massacre” renders the band’s folk initiative one of irony, as it heralds the album’s arrival with thunderous barrage of drums and distorted guitar. For the better part of five minutes, Barnes navigates the listener through an unwieldy inventory of percolating drumbeats, gut-rumbling bass, high-frequency squeals, robotic spoken word recitations, and eerie guitar arpeggios that recall weathered wind chimes. It’s not total sonic annihilation, but it’s the closest the band has ever come embracing decay.
Perhaps as a means of juxtaposition, “Black Lion Massacre” is followed by the aforementioned “Flunkt Sass,” which actually only permits a temporary sense of calm; diatonic guitar chords are quickly eschewed in favor of jittery sing-song vocals treated with delay and typically sadistic imagery (“Aging apocalyptic ecstasy”).
Thecontrollersphere gains momentum by the time the eight-minute “Holiday Call” arrives at the EP’s midway point. The track’s initial third is fairly indicative of the prototype Of Montreal sound, with gleaming electronic textures, a swaggering indie pop groove, and lyrics that address submissiveness (“Hands on my knee, my lord / fingers running up my sleeve, my lord”). From there though, the song looses itself in a euphoric dance groove à la Cut Copy, spurred by a looping violin riff and hypnotic polyrhythms. It’s a shockingly pleasant and effervescent affair, particularly coming from a guy who names his albums things like Skeletal Lamping and Satanic Panic in the Attic.
“L’age D’or” plays like a False Priest b-side, with the percussive bass line, funky guitar work, and unhinged vocals enhancing Barnes’ oversexed lyrics. Thecontrollersphere closes out with “Slave Translator,” a song that begins assuredly enough with spiky guitar stabs and saccharine falsetto vocals before a space rock groove allows lethargy to set in. Neither approach prepares the listener for the song’s coda however, where the proceedings devolve into a smoldering heap of static, screams, and white noise.
Thecontrollersphere is another thrilling addition to the Of Montreal catalog, but it’s hardly a welcoming entry point for those unaccustomed to the depraved yet tantalizing world of Kevin Barnes. For longtime fans though, this EP represents another exhilarating turn from one of America’s most singular musicians.