Piano Magic: Ovations

Admirably economical and efficient, Piano Magic's Ovations packs ten songs into a forty-five-minute global travelogue that with each song stops in either a different geographical locale (Marrakesh, Manchester) or style (New Wave, post-punk). Though it's the group's tenth album, it sounds little like the work of a spent outfit bereft of ideas or enthusiasm and interested in doing little more than spinning its wheels. While the songs themselves are an above-average lot, what recommends the album most are its richly-textured arrangements (the songs are filled with sounds of darabuka, hammered dulcimer, strings, analog synths, guitars, piano, and percussion) that Glen Johnson and company (Dead Can Dance's Brendan Perry and Peter Ulrich among them) have so fastidiously worked out.

Perry takes the lead vocal on the opener, “The Nightmare Goes On,” which, true to its title, is certainly menacing but seductive too, especially when enveloping synths sweep in alongside the tune's African-influenced tribal rhythms. Perry also brings his graceful croon to the lushly-orchestrated “You Never Loved This City,” which supports his vocal (and elegant couplets like “Your love, a stained glass window / Your heart, a chandelier”) with a restrained arrangement of piano and strings. The hallucinogenic swirl of “March of the Atheists” transports us to the center of a Moroccan street market with Johnson's voice heard against a churning backdrop of melismatic string melodies, claps, and exotic percussion. The incantatory “A Fond Farewell” pairs chanted vocals with an arresting arrangement made up of strings, glockenspiel, darabuka, and claves. “Exit” guides the listener out with an electronic serenade whose coldness is offset by the lovely vocal pairing of Johnson and Angèle David-Guillou (Ovations would have benefited from a stronger helping of her vocal presence).

Piano Magic isn't shy about revealing its influences. That's especially evident when Robin Guthrie-styled guitars introduce “The Blue Hour” and Johnson follows them with a haunted vocal that's equal parts Ian Curtis and Richard Hawley. Even so, the song is seductive, regardless of whatever influences can be discerned. The guitar-heavy “Recovery Position” resembles a riff on post-punk by way of New Order, The Smiths, and The Cure, while “The Faint Horizon” is even closer in spirit to New Order, right down to the lead vocal and double-time drum attack. With its skittering beats and hammering bass drum pulse, “On Edge” also opts for a electro-synth wail that aligns Piano Magic to the industrial-electronic scene of decades past. “Maybe it's time to get out / We all have our reasons” Johnson and David-Guillou sing in “Exit,” voicing a sentiment that may portend more than merely the close of an album. Admittedly, thirteen years is a long time for a band of any kind, but—though it may ultimately prove to be so—Ovations doesn't sound like a last gasp.

December 2009