Last year I reviewed Laughing Stock’s The Island, which was a reinterpretation of their debut album of the same name. As such, this year’s Zero, Acts I & II is either their third or fourth album, depending on how you choose to count. The trio of Jan Mikael Sørensen, Jan Erik Kirkevold Nilsen and Håvard Enge are back with another concept album – or, more precisely, two quarters of a new concept album. And it’s a phenomenal beast. I have to admit it took a long time for me to come for grips with, in comparison to their previous albums, and a lot of this is down to how Laughing Stock have recreated musically the feelings of the protagonist, which means for much of the album (including all of the first Act) there is a sameness of sound, and the lack of relief is quite disconcerting at first. But over repeated listens, this is no longer so wearing, and I am in Zero’s world. I even wonder if I shied away from the material initially because I had similar feelings of loneliness and alienation in my youth. Those feelings are palpable in the music, which doesn’t even ease a listener in gently.
Welcome begins the album in a most unwelcoming manner. Even when the crashing introductory notes give way to softer acoustic guitar, it is accompanied by a baby’s cry, as we are informed of Zero’s entry into the world. Melancholy and menace trade passages, and this shortest of introductory songs is a great indicator of the quality of this concept album. There are too many concept albums that are almost incomprehensible, and I’ve encountered more than a few entirely instrumental concept albums that tell the story better than those with lyrics. Of course, Laughing Stock are no strangers to concept albums, and these first two Acts of Zero are probably their best demonstration of their compositional skill yet.
The rhythm of When Darkness Comes is like a heartbeat that’s audible at night when all else is silent, except for thoughts and anxieties that run rampant. There’s a tangible sense of loneliness and alienation. Alone, and in the dark. Already, the baby and mother are alienated from each other. Towards the end, the song turns into a mournful march, melodramatic in the best manner of Queen and My Chemical Romance, but somehow more subtle and sombre. Nighttime follows in symphonic glory, with some beautiful harmonies. Zero is no longer a baby, but he still wonders where she is in the night. Suddenly the lush arrangements fall away, and we are left with some sparse Floydian soundscapes. Beautiful yet just a little disconcerting. If this is sleep, it’s not an entirely restful one. And this is how Act I plays out – a depressing state of affairs, where even sleep brings no relief. The next day is only going to be more of the same.
I love the cello on Imaginary Friend, as Zero’s loneliness (explored in music and lyrics previously) manifests itself in his imaginary friend. A friend to not only provide companionship, but distraction from his mother’s dramas. It crescendos beautifully, and takes us into the most positive and upbeat song yet! Zero is going to School, clearly full of the hope and promise of making a real friend. Unfortunately, this soon dissipates, leaving Zero pleading, and the song trailing off into slower, sadder, and ultimately darker music, as Zero begins to feel that it must be something wrong with him. The sadness is conveyed by piano and strings in Child. This is a particularly beautiful song, and reminds me a lot of Bowie. Here ends Act I, and I’ve become accustomed to giving myself an intermission here. This is unusual for me, as I like to listen to albums in one go, regardless of their length, if possible. And yet, the way this album is constructed, it is almost necessary to take a break. Not a long one, mind you. Five or ten minutes tops. I can easily enough listen to the album in one go, and still find it enjoyable – but I really do find that this short break enhances both acts.
And so Act II begins, with Leave Me Alone – the first single to be released ahead of the album, and I guess there’s good reason for this. Laughing Stock often remind me of Pink Floyd, but this song is incredibly Floydian, which gives it a great “familiarity”, and easy accessibility. I can’t imagine a better track to release as a single. The vocals are quite reminiscent of Roger Waters at times, and there’s some Great Gig vocalisations. But there’s also some very heavy and edgy music – the most so far on the album. It’s just a real gem of a song. It also introduces Samantha Preis to the Laughing Stock world as Zero’s mother. Leave Me Alone is not quite a duet, though, as the dialogue between mother and son is stilted from Zero’s alienation and depression.
The following My Love is split into two parts (the second of which was released as the second single leading up to the album’s release). Given this is narrated by Zero there is a certain amount of ambiguity to the story of his love. Was she really a secret love, or just a crush he came close to stalking. The second part is sung by Helene Håberg Allum, and she removes the ambiguity, before Zero reprises his lament. Last Supper is the point where Zero makes his decision to leave his home, never to return. Having made this decision, the music becomes more confidant than at any point up until now. Strident, determined and resolute. Heck, it’s jubilant, triumphant, and almost celebratory. It’s hard not to be on Zero’s side, even as the song dips back into fragility as it ends.
Zero is a more delicate number, but still determined. The knowledge of knowing he’s disappearing, and of what he’s leaving, but still feeling it is best for him and his family for him to go. And the taking of his identity as Zero. By not being anyone, he can be anyone. The final song is short, like the opening number, but completely different in sound and feeling. Even as tears fill Zero’s eyes as he leaves, Curtain Falls is the most optimistic song on the album. Maybe only quietly so, but there, as tinged as it is with sadness, there is a real sense of hope. It leaves me longing to find out what happens in the next act, and sets up a perfect “cliffhanger”. Bring on Acts III and IV!
01. Welcome (2:27)
02. When Darkness Comes (4:38)
03. Nighttime (6:24)
04. Imaginary Friend (4:46)
05. School (3:33)
06. Child (4:12)
07. Leave Me Alone (4:44)
08. My Love, Part 1 (4:04)
09. My Love, Part 2 (4:13)
10. Zero (4:31)
11. Curtain Falls (1:48)
Total Time – 45:20
Jan Mikael Sørensen – Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Drums, Keyboards
Håvard Enge – Vocals, Keyboards, Electric Piano, Hammond Organ, Flute
Jan Erik Kirkevold Nilsen – Vocals, Guitars, Harmonica
Samantha Preis – Guest Vocals (track 7)
Helene Håberg Allum – Guest Vocals (track 9)
Monica Green – Cello (tracks 4 & 6)
Kirsten Willgren – Violin (track 6)
Record Label: Apollon Records
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 19th March 2021