It’s probably hard to dance to but I wouldn’t know about that. What I do know is that Vennart’s The Demon Joke is a great listen.
I want music to captivate my mind and soul and it doesn’t matter what the genre is if it can do that. Now much missed, I came fairly late to the Oceansize party and was immediately drawn in by their sound, not built like so many others I hear on the touchstone prog bands of yore but coming from a different place entirely; modern alternative experimentalism, as can be deduced by the decision to name the band after a Jane’s Addiction song. Other influences included Radiohead, Mogwai, Aphex Twin, Nine Inch Nails, Tool and Cardiacs, most of which are apparent somewhere or other within The Demon Joke, the debut solo work by singer/guitarist Mike Vennart after four albums and a number of other releases with Oceansize.
Vennart has said “I wanted to be experimental and unusual and still write pop songs”, and so he has for a good number of years now and here he has put together a sparkling release, cunningly and lovingly crafted from relatively simple parts, the arrangements and dedication to intoxicating melodies building them into more than their individual face value might attest.
Along for the ride are Vennart’s former Oceansize compadres, on guitar and bass respectively, Gambler and Steve Durose (the latter also currently a member of Amplifier) plus a drummer called Denzil who delivers on songs like Retaliate where the pattern smacks of Oceansize amid fuzzy up-front bass, weird ziggy-zaggy keys and colliding guitars as we head off the rails with intoxicating wooziness. This sounds like a band already with Mike’s shimmering songs at the core of a supremely listenable framework.
The Demon Joke is an album of accessible modernity with interest and excitement to spare. There are similarities but it feels different to Oceansize, a wonderfully varied album of great songs with melody at its heart. The choices of backing and arrangement are also integral to the overall appeal which is not complex for the sake of it whilst packing a lot in. The result is a fine listen and it is great to have Mike back doing what he does best, his strange songs benefitting from the variety in his voice and delivery. It is all pulled off with supreme skill, such as on Don’t Forget the Joker where Mike is imperious, delivering his soulful words with the emotion of a James Dean Bradfield amidst loping guitars and drums.
The songs have a quiet “largeness” about them, the expansive intro of chiming guitar over sweeping keys that opens 255 something of an anomaly before settling into disjointed drums, the plaintive vocal supported by stripped back distortion. More enigmatic, pounding rhythms set against chiming guitars, is Infatuate. Mike is in fine voice and I revel in the quirkiness. The rhythm is persistent with bass to the fore (hints of New Order?) and a great chorus. Another killer chorus explodes skywards during Operate, stadium-sized without the stadium attitude. A prog-ness runs through Rebirthmark and The Blue Nile come to mind here and there. The odd meter starts out controlled before opening out into a laid-back swoon of a song with gorgeous background instrumentation and a vocal line with a touch of Mew about it. Simple yet very effective.
A new tack with Duke Fame, Rawk ‘n’ Roll with a bare chested MV, foot on the monitor for the opening. And then it changes, lovely high pitched choral vocals making it a song of two halves. Well, three halves really as the last third is a different thing altogether and truly massive with loads of guitars doing all kinds of things over a driving beat. This deserves to be heard on the radio or pumping out of car windows.
Some passages get a little, er, wilful around the periphery but these short bursts of eccentricity are just another layer, the meat and two of the songs remaining mightily appealing. Quirkiness reappears in a Cardiacs infused Doubt, fuzzed guitars and ’80s video game keys mixing with hints of Knifeworld before a beautifully driving guitar passage. They can also do floaty and light, A Weight in the Hollow typically Vennart with an unusual vocal line, the rhythm emerging as it crystallizes into a straight ahead chorus delivered superbly. This is a song to get lost in and there is a yearning as it builds to another huge climax before fading through a cascade of chimes to silence. The closing Amends is equally life affirming, big guitars and a sprinkling of keys making it a lovely way to finish.
The feel is often quite bare and stripped back, padded out by a fuzziness to the guitars, layering and deftly deployed keys within which MV conjures up his killer hooks. He is also adept at keeping what surrounds them interesting and compelling. The band create a tight and controlled sound, less epic than Oceansize but capable of offering expansiveness within lean songs. There are no fiddly extended instrumental workouts, these are songs plain and simple, an album of short sharp shocks that benefits from the brevity to give expansiveness without undue length.
Fans of Mike Vennart are sure to love this and hopefully there’ll be a few more of those around after hearing this one.
01. 255 (3:15)
02. Doubt (4:13)
03. Infatuate (5:10)
04. Rebirthmark (3:46)
05. Duke Fame (4:17)
06. Don’t Forget The Joker (3:54)
07. Retaliate (3:56)
08. A Weight in the Hollow (5:39)
09. Operate (4:45)
10. Amends (3:33)
Mike Vennart – Vocals, Guitar
Steve Durose – Bass
Richard “Gambler” Ingram – Guitar, Keyboards
Denzil – Drums
Label: Superball Music