In 2009, following the release of Vapours, a lot of people told me that Islands had become a completely different band. They were upset by the heavy use of poppy synths and slick mainstream production. I didn’t understand the problem because that’s always been Islands to me. They’ve never hidden the fact that they’re a pop band-they just happen to be one that writes sometimes extremely morbid songs about love and death. Leaving some of the lush orchestration of Arm’s Way behind wasn’t something I focused on. Instead I paid attention to the fact that Islands had become much more confident in making the music that they wanted to make without worrying about whether critics of fans would stand by their choices. Honestly, I think Vapours is one of their better albums.
After releasing the excellent but quite gloomy A Sleep And A Forgetting last year, Islands are back with a slightly more upbeat record called Ski Mask. You’ve probably already heard the two singles they’ve released over the past couple months. “Wave Forms” and “Becoming The Gunship” are both fantastic songs, the latter being one of my favorites from the album.
The first time I heard “Wave Forms” I had been reading about how Ridley Scott was trying to get a sequel to Blade Runner off the ground. All I could think of was how great a soundtrack from Islands would be. The way they use the synths is very Vangelis-y. The chances of this happening are pretty slim, since Hollywood wants Trent Reznor for every score. As the first song following AS&AF, “Wave Forms” makes perfect sense. The previous record was considered Nick’s breakup album, and the final verse of this song is an indication that he’s done wallowing.
In the golden hour
holding on to burning embers
there’s no sound
it’s over now can
return to sender
the water’s calm and I am moving on
One song on the album has been floating around for a while now. I saw Nick when he was touring with Mister Heavenly, and they played “Shotgun Vision” at Lincoln Hall. The guitars on the album version seem to be toned down a bit-they were loud and intrusive in the live version. I really like the song, but I’m surprised it made it onto an Islands record instead of the Mister Heavenly follow-up if there ever is one.
The middle of Ski Mask is essentially a perfect Islands record in itself. Kicking off with “Becoming The Gunship” down through “Hushed Tones” you really get all the best qualities of the band. If “Becoming” isn’t my favorite song on the album, the one right after it is. “Nil” is a great sing-a-long track that starts with a Bowie-esque harmony. In true Thorburn fashion, it’s an upbeat tune about drug addiction. “When I’m drowning I like drowning alone. Don’t need no one to tell me to pull up the row. I can’t have only one, no I can’t just have only one. It’s all or na-na-none you know that it’s true. So you leave nil for me.”
“Sad Middle” is probably the closest Ski Mask gets to Arm’s Way territory. It definitely feels like it was written in the same spirit as a lot of that album. There seems to be a bigger emphasis on vocal arrangements on Ski Mask than there was before, and they pull everything off really well. The percussion also seems to have taken a step forward, especially on “Hushed Tones.” The foundation of the song is built so perfectly that you could play almost anything over it and get a great song. It definitely plays into the obvious 80’s influence going on throughout the album.
Ski Mask is just another piece of evidence, among a great many others, proving that Islands is one of the best bands working today. If you gave up on them after Vapours because they didn’t fit whatever you think they’re supposed to be, that’s your bad. The quality of their music has changed only for the better. They’ve embraced their true selves and their music reflects that. If you skip Ski Mask, you’re denying yourself one of the best musical experiences of the year.
This September and October Islands will be on tour across the US. They hit Chicago on October 14th at the Empty Bottle. Tickets are still available (miraculously), so you should pick those up immediately. Ski Mask is officially released on September 17th, so I’m sure it will be streaming somewhere soon.