I have been struggling to write this review for some months now, not because I can’t think of anything positive to say, but simply because I have found it difficult to review the final acts of Laughing Stock’s Zero without spoilers. I very much followed the story of Zero in my review of Acts 1 & 2, because in common with the first acts of any tragedy they had a sad inevitability in the way they played out. It didn’t feel in any way or at any time that I might be spoiling the experience of anyone listening for the first time, nor revealing anything that might ruin any surprise. There were no surprises. Zero’s childhood played out in that sadly predictable way, and it felt right to reflect that in my review. Even though Act 2 ends with quite an impressive climax that sets up the listener for the following acts, it didn’t feel wrong to express how that climactic point was reached.
Acts 3 & 4 provide far more mystery. Before listening to a note of Zero, Acts 1 & 2 I had a very good idea of how the story would go, and while I could obviously never know the exact plot and storyline, it did follow the expected tropes. Act 2 had a very open end, though. The childhood of any Zero might be somewhat predictable, but what happens a few years down the line is near impossible to guess. Hence my dilemma, as describing any of the music or vocals for Acts 3 & 4 holds the danger of giving too much away – and I don’t want to give anything away. So apologies if this review feels somewhat vague. It’s deliberate, and to my mind, necessary. What I can say is that, like the first parts, Acts 3 & 4 are like a curious and wonderful melange of Talk Talk and Pink Floyd – both musically and vocally. Now, in the words of Laughing Stock:
“Years have gone by, and Zero has become a young adult. But when you feel like a zero, invisible even to yourself, what does the future have in store for you? A world mostly lived inside his own mind, surrounded by four walls and not much more. All this is about to change the day Zero is woken up by heavy knocking on the door…”
Those four walls that surround Zero make up much of Acts 3 & 4, both literally and metaphorically. There is often a sense of claustrophobia in the music, of being locked in, and occasionally longing for freedom. Indeed, in the opening number of Act 3, it is a sort of freedom that Zero seeks, in the manner that he reacts to the person who is knocking at the door. This reaction alone, before anything else had even happened, took me by complete surprise. In a way, it should perhaps not have been entirely unexpected, and it was more the timing than anything else. Even if it were a matter of when, rather than if, I did not expect this in the opening number. Once again, as with Acts 1 & 2, Laughing Stock demonstrate how adept they are in composing a concept album. The outline is clear, even if it is left to the listener to fill in some of the details. In fact, I prefer it this way, and it really provokes involvement in the album, and identification with the characters.
Like Acts 1 & 2, Zero Acts 3 & 4 features guests. The first to appear is Nad Sylvan, and I have to admit when I first heard of his involvement, my stomach lurched. I know Nad has a lot of fans, but I am not one of them. He simply leaves me cold, and I really didn’t think I would enjoy his contribution. How wrong I was. Playing the psychiatrist attending Zero, he provides a very minimal and understated vocal that just works. I’m actually quite glad that guest vocals are kept to a minimum, as (just as with Acts 1 & 2) I honestly don’t think Laughing Stock need to use them for this story. Not least because the vocals are terrific without needing someone else to play off. They won’t be to everyone’s taste, but then neither are Mark Hollis and Roger Waters. That said, I have to admit I do like the added flavour, so I’m not complaining – even when one of those guests is someone I wouldn’t normally choose to listen to.
But how does Zero find Nad? Has his meeting been therapeutic? Well, as aforementioned, I don’t have any intention of giving anything away, but we next find Zero once again surrounded by four walls and not much more, dreaming of freedom once more. The act ends with Zero alone, and trying to convince himself he is free, although deep down he knows he just wants/wanted to be loved by his mother. At the end of Act 2 we were told that “He will never come back again”. Act 4 will reveal if that is the case…
As could be expected, given it is the final act, this is probably the most dramatic and impressive in the story of Zero. After all, everything has been leading to this point. And it’s beautifully presented. Act 4 is wonderfully bookended by the two parts of Words, and contains more fantastic guests. Kerstin Willgren provides violin, Samantha Preis reprises her role of Zero’s mother, and Andy Glass of Solstice provides a wonderful guitar solo on Running Faster. But as great as these songs are – and they are great – they are dwarfed by the awesome penultimate song. Mother is an absolute monster of a song, and the longest by a large margin of any of the acts. It is gloriously overblown and melodramatic. It is climactic and bombastic. It is everything I could want to end the album, and story. Which, of course, it doesn’t, as the second part of Words does that instead – and a more perfect end I could not ask for. Words, Part 2 manages to both explain everything and nothing, and leaves things open for a sequel, if Laughing Stock ever feel the need to revisit this story.
“It’s just begun… We’ll see…”
In the meantime, Laughing Stock have left us with two beautifully composed and presented albums. If you have Acts 1 & 2 already, you probably need no urging to purchase Acts 3 & 4. But if you’re not familiar with Acts 1 & 2, as much as I think this album can be enjoyed by itself, I’m not sure it’s possible to appreciate just how good it is without hearing the first two acts. The artwork and layout of the booklets and inlays for both albums complement each other as beautifully as the music. Although released individually, and although they can be listened to separately, the two albums (or four acts) really do come into their own when experienced as one. By all means, I might take time for an intermission, and visit the bar for refreshments, but I find I never want to listen to one of these albums without the other…
01. Wingless (4:18)
02. Lifeboat (4:32)
03. The Call (4:47)
04. Free (2:43)
05. All Alone (5:31)
06. Words (1:51)
07. Running Faster (4:13)
08. Familiar Eyes (4:25)
09. Mother (10:24)
10. Words, Part 2 (1:57)
Total Time – 44:41
Jan Mikael Sørensen – Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Drums, Keyboards
Håvard Enge – Vocals, Keyboards, Flute, Banjo, String Arrangements
Jan Erik Kirkevold Nilsen – Vocals, Guitars, Artwork
Nad Sylvan – Vocals (on The Call)
Samantha Preis – Vocals (on Familiar Eyes)
Andy Glass – Guitar Solo (on Lifeboat)
Kerstin Willgeen – Violin (on Words & Familiar Eyes)
Record Label: Apollon Records
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 4th March 2022