Once upon a time, an English band then comprising three members made an album called Laughing Stock. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a Norwegian three piece have named themselves Laughing Stock, as there is definitely some Talk Talk in their music. Indeed, there’s a lot in their music. So much so, that it is very difficult to peg them into any one particular hole. The Island is their debut album, previously self-released in 2018, and now given a larger audience through a new release with Apollon Records. The Island is definitely deserving of this larger audience, too. Although it might seem that this is merely a re-release of the original, as far as I can tell, it is an entirely new recording, which several of the tracks reworked.
Comparing the track listing I received for review with the original release, the first thing I noticed was the artwork. I actually already liked the artwork, and the way the band made up the shape of an island. What I hadn’t realised was that they have used the shape of the island in the original artwork – very clever! Other than that, there appears to be a slight tweaking in the track order. One track from the original release has become a bonus track appended to the physical version of the re-release. A track not on the original becomes a second bonus track on the CD version of the album. Neither of these two bonus tracks, nor the longest track on the album, were sent to me for review. I’m not particularly perturbed about missing the bonus tracks, though, as they have obviously been decided not to be relevant enough to the concept to be required listening (although I am intrigued as to why one of the songs was included the first time the album was released).
I decided to listen to the album using first the original track order, and then the new. It’s not often a concept album would, or even could, be re-ordered. But in this case, it makes a sort of sense, as the concept is that of living in a world in disarray, and the challenges experienced day-to-day as the world falls further and further off its hinges. And, the differences in track order are largely cosmetic, also. Whether it is The Party’s Over or The Island which open the album, each provide a beautiful instrumental opening, with a dramatic change halfway through. In both instances of the album, this instrumental album is followed by That Face, which is a truly magnificent number. It’s Pink Floyd meets Neil Young meets Black Sabbath. Like the band in general, the song refuses to stick to one style, and flits from light to heavy, and from structured and precise to loose and jamming.
The first major difference in track listing is where Descension is placed, as it’s another shorter instrumental track (and a quite beautiful one, too). I have to say I prefer it’s placement in the newer track listing, than the original. It effectively bookends That Face nicely, and doesn’t let the pace slow as much as Canyon Crawlers did. On both versions, Descension leads very nicely into Vultures, Bats and Reptiles – the longest track on the album, at around eleven minutes. I love the keening guitar that opens and howls over this track. After three minutes of this extended instrumental introduction, the instrumentation almost all falls away, and what was approaching metal is instead closer to folk. Three minutes later again, and we’re back to heavier sounds. The band chop and change without ever sounding forced or abrupt. Indeed, they make such changes sound natural. The sound clips that play over the heavy backing are incredibly effective.
Vultures, I would presume to be the end of the first side of the album, with the second side of the album opening with either The Island, or The Party’s Over, depending on which other had opened the first side. As aforementioned, both these tracks are very similar in style, even if they do differ in sound. Both provide perfect openings, and prove to be interchangeable, and equally effective whichever is used.
The first song of the second side of the original album is now one of the two bonus tracks on the physical release of the new album, and so I’m unable to say how it sounds. I do find Canyon Crawlers works far better here, though, than after That Face (as it appeared originally). It’s a long and slow dirge in the vein of Neil Young, and it’s quite gorgeous. Coming after the relative bombast of That Face originally, its beauty was somewhat overwhelmed. In its new position, it holds its own, and has a lot more impact. This is one time where the re-sequencing of tracks on the re-release of The Island is more than cosmetic. It makes a big difference, and Canyon Crawlers benefits hugely from it. I love the final minute or so, and despite the length of the song already, I’d have loved for that guitar solo to develop rather than fade away.
From here, disregarding bonus tracks, the order remains the same on both the original and the new versions of The Island. First up is the melancholic instrumental Fallen Star, which bookends Canyon Crawlers the way the two instrumentals bookend That Face on the first side. This sense of mirroring didn’t exist on the original album release, and is really quite noticeable and effective on the new version. Perhaps the original version portrayed the disarray of modern life better, by not being so symmetrical, but this new sequencing is ultimately far more pleasurable to listen to. (My opinion, of course, and I have no doubt others might prefer the original track order.)
Who We Are is possibly my favourite track on the album, and I honestly can’t put my finger on why this is. Other tracks are either more splendidly subtle or spectacular. Who We Are decidedly treads the middle ground. It is, however a track of two parts. The first four minutes remind me of Violent Attitude If Noticed, and the final two of Smashing Pumpkins. I’m sure neither were influences of Laughing Stock, so if they’re reading this, they’re probably querying my ears. Either way, I really like this song.
30 Years closes the album perfectly. For that reason alone, I’m glad I didn’t have the bonus tracks to hear. There’s something a little unsettling upon hearing an album finish, and then have another song follow. The final four minutes of 30 Years are some of the most enjoyable on the album. Absolutely sublime! This track is the only thing that prevents me from declaring Who We Are my favourite on the album. Between these two, the album closes out in style. Or, should that be styles. For Laughing Stock is comfortable whether playing pop, rock, folk or metal, or some hybrid of them all. Perhaps a pinch or two of psychedelic and jazz added to the mix for good measure. I couldn’t even begin to guess all their influences, so varied is the palette they draw from, but I’d take a stab in the dark, and venture Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Tears for Fears, Talk Talk, XTC, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Camel, The Beatles and probably at least a couple of dozen others. If you like any, all, or even none of the aforementioned, give The Island a go. It may not be a new album, per se, but it’s likely new to most, and it’s well worth your time.
01. The Island (3:14)
02. That Face (5:40)
03. Descension (4:10)
04. Vultures, Bats & Reptiles (10:42)
05. The Party’s Over (3:04)
06. Canyon Crawlers (6:36)
07. Fallen Star (3:06)
08. Who We Are (7:10)
09. 30 Years (7:48)
10. Return to Darkness (CD Bonus Track)
11. Nothing More (CD Bonus Track)
Jan Mikael Sørensen – Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Drums, Keyboards
Håvard Enge – Vocals, Keyboards, Flute
Jan Erik Kirkevold Nilsen – Vocals, Guitars
Record label – Apollon Records
Country of Origin – Norway
Date of Release – 24th July 2020