It’s fitting that Frog Eyes intends for Violet Psalms to be their last album: it sounds like the end of the world. The Canadian band’s eighth LP burns with an apocalyptic intensity that feels final and definitive, like some dire prophecy has come to pass.
The group has long worked in a sinister vein, though rarely with such sharp-edged precision. These 10 songs are a study in musical dynamics, with ever-shifting instrumentation that leaves moments of brooding calm, and even silence, that are torn by spikes of guitar or swollen with eerie synthesizers, and then punctuated by Carey Mercer’s voice. He sings as though he’s illuminated from below by some diabolical light, pronouncing his lyrics with meticulous diction in a reedy voice that can be disconcertingly self-contained one moment and strident and agitated the next. Mercer delivers a resonant murmur beneath lurching guitar on “Your Boss’s Shirt,” and dials up the melodrama with wrung-out vocals that pierce through layers of drifting synths on “A Finely Sewn Sleeve,” a prog-folk song from the depths of a haunted forest. Gnashing guitars enhance the manic edge in his vocals on “Itch of Summer Knees,” and there’s more than a hint of instability on “Little Mothers” when he commands (or foretells?), “You shall unlock the door that sets you free,” his voice ascending into a teetering, jubilant falsetto as he stretches out the last word.
For all the moments of unsettling weirdness—and there are plenty—Violet Psalms is almost compulsively listenable. There are flashes of effusive melody: “Idea Man” starts as a bright, hooky tune with a burbling, frenetic beat and sunny vocals until it deflates into an extended come-down in the second half of the song. There are mesmerizing guitar parts, too: A terse and foreboding two-note riff cuts through a wash of noise on “Sleek as the Day Is Done,” then yields to trebly squibs that ring out like demented bell chimes. The pattern repeats as the song builds tension until a huge descending guitar line tumbles down with the force of a slow-motion rock slide.
Mercer formed Frog Eyes in 2001 and he and drummer Melanie Campbell—his wife—have been the only permanent members on a string of albums, EPs and split singles (though Campbell sat out the band’s 2013 LP Carey’s Cold Spring after having a baby) over the past 17 years. They’re joined on Violet Psalms by bassist Terri Upton and keyboardist Shyla Seller. It’s not the most high-profile roster: the band at points has included Spencer Krug, who went on to form Wolf Parade; and also Dante DeCaro, of Hot Hot Heat and later Wolf Parade. Frog Eyes have also collaborated and toured with Dan Bejar of Destroyer. All the same, Mercer, Campbell, Upton and Seller are as compelling a lineup as Frog Eyes have had, and the foursome has made an album that exerts a powerful gravitational pull. While it’s a shame Violet Psalms is their farewell, it’s hard to imagine a more triumphant way to go.