Sicker Man: Vicca Tantrum
Blank Records

Tobias Vethake's no fool: he realizes that a song must be melodically and instrumentally distinctive if it hopes to have any chance of lingering in the listener's memory once the recording's over. Vicca Tantrum, his latest Sicker Man recording, lives up to such a challenge by, first of all, including a number of powerful melodic phrases—motifs, really, in that they appear within a number of songs—within pieces of dynamic contrast and secondly, being sonically memorable, especially when Kiki Bohemia's singing contributions are factored into the equation.

For this Sicker Man solo project, Vethake plays all of the instruments, such that sounds of guitar, zither, glockenspiel, synthesizer, and cello all work their way into the album's eight tracks (field recordings as well). For want of a better description, the songs might be characterized as vocal-based indie-rock with a strong shot of electronics added in for extra seasoning. Things are never quite as simple as that, however: “Splendor / Hold the Line,” for example, derives its animation from a insistent, techno-like shuffle, whereas “Hard to Find” presents itself as a classical-tinged ballad that one could imagine John Cale singing. “Catches,” on the other hand, fits comfortably within the folk-pop tradition in its acoustic-heavy arrangement.

Though it's somewhat of an enigmatic release on content grounds, the album narrative concerns a city resident whose emotional and spiritual struggles are recounted through the songs' lyrics. At times, industrial grime coats a song as if to emphasize the alienation, loneliness, and self-doubt that can bring down even the city's most stoical inhabitant. Throughout the forty-four-minute collection, Vethake also does a good job of balancing aggressive songs with others of a more subdued disposition. Those in the latter category, such as “I Will Be,” also allow for the music's sweeter sounds (e.g., the cello and glockenspiel) to become more audible, and the songs that feature vocals by both Bohemia and Vethake are heightened due to the contrast between their voices.

The album's first strong melodic moment appears within the opening “Hard to Find / Down Town” (and later “Hard to Find”) in its “All I need is some kind of scheme to help me through my life / All I need is some kind of dream to help me fill my heart” chorus, the lyric's desperation mirrored in the fuzz-toned clatter of the song's arrangement. Another powerful melodic sequence appears during the gentle second half of “Splendor / Hold the Line” in Bohemia's haunting “You know that I have tried within my time / I've tried to hold the line to let you shine” refrain. One of the album's central motifs, the lyric re-emerges in “Hold the Noise” but this time in a way that sees Vethake voicing it initially as a delicate whisper and eventually, in tandem with the escalating noise around it, as a scream. The resigned, almost hymnal tone of the closing “Hiding in the Past” suggests that some kind of resolution to the saga has been reached in a forlorn ballad whose melodic and vocal trajectories call artists as varying as Leonard Cohen and Smashing Pumpkins to mind—pretty good company to be in if you're a songwriter.

January 2014