The compelling nature of music is an intriguing expansion. Baltimore-based Future Islands has always been about taking that expansion and invigorating it with an emotional carriage of embellishments. Last year’s In Evening Air was a revelatory discovery for some, including yours truly and now, a mere year later, the band presents another expansion, On the Water. Music’s never been about purely taking it mechanically apart for dissection and duly noted – one could never apply apt words to music’s overflowing gestures – still, it’s feasible to highlight passion as a word that goes hand in hand with Future Islands, now and forever.
One would have to admit that the three-song beginning on In Evening Air is absolutely something magical. The spellbinding stories in each song portraying a prevailing spirit – paired with equally hypnotic music, they focused either on swirling, twirling, driving repetition (“Walking Through That Door”), majestically-proud and thrilling combinations of melody and superb rhythms (“Tin Man”) and poignantly, in stunning fashion all-at-once (“Long Flight”) – it’s an astounding way to begin an album. It was easily something Future Islands uncovered and as a unified album, it was positively one of the better releases, if not one of the most adoring, last year had to offer. And while On the Water features a complex set of new feelings and emotions to discover, the sheer intensity is stridently a few notches behind.
There’s certainly moments where everything gels into a superb slice of pop heaven, like on “Before the Bridge.” Showcasing a strong side for the tremendously dramatic and stunning, the band employs heavy percussion mallets and drums for a stellar ride of energy. Even though the band has shifted gears, so to say, there’s nothing stopping them from propelling forward. The song is brilliantly placed in how it immediately perks up the pouring momentum of the opening title track, before nestling into “The Great Fire”’s steady, sparkling nature.
Taking a more direct approach in segues, flow and concept, the band definitely attempted to create a rich story with On the Water. Some of the energy is allowed to digress – as it also did on moments on the erstwhile album – with a few deliberate sections (“Open”) and on many of the song’s opening and ending strands of music. “Balance” starts with background chatter, a lonely accordion and more waves before flexing into a bumping display of keyboards and hammering drums and before it, on “Close to None” the band travels through U2 circa-Joshua Tree swells of atmosphere, before resting on another beating hit of drums. Songs easily melt into and around each other and significant moments on individual songs are immersed with fantastic glory throughout.
And although the band tends to the concept of the passing waves, songs like “Tybee Island” sounds almost out of place. There’s a transcendent beauty in the background shrills of noise but the jagged vocal line almost displaces it; “Grease” soars in however, ensuring the album is captivatingly spelled together. Lush and evocative, the introductory melody beguiles the listener with sweeping, grandiose arrangements. There’s synthesizer and the roar of the drums speaks to the band’s 80s vibe but through a rich bass and Samuel Herring’s vocals, it all towers over the album’s ending like a substantial cascade of waterfalls. There’s mystery in the slow trudge of the beat as it supports the rumbling bass and the song continues to grow into a high-flying collection of sounds.
With a compelling nature comes the pleasure in knowing that music is continuously rewarding. Albums enriched with stories and sounds waiting to be unearthed are a dying art and fortunately, Future Islands seem to be part of the decorative minority. On the Water presents a new wave of sounds to fall in love with and maybe the opportunity to recount past favorites. In the end, there’s solace in enjoying the refreshed music Future Islands continue to provide.