The pedestal is a potentially dangerous object, sometimes even metaphorically – though it really depends on how hard you can throw it.
Australian progressive rock band Anubis have been sitting quite comfortably on my pedestal for quite some time. Their previous albums, 230503, A Tower of Silence, and Hitchhiking to Byzantium remain some of my favourite albums, and those of you who have read my review of the latter may even accuse me of, dare I say, ‘fanaticism’? However after first hearing their fourth studio album, The Second Hand, I began to second guess myself and my expectations of the band – am I right to expect an artist’s latest work to be the same as their others? Am I right to even have expectations? What this record shows, both as a part of Anubis’ discography and through its politically-charged concept, is that to err is human. Though some may see it to be a misstep in an excellent discography, The Second Hand is an admirable effort, where Anubis’ shift in musical style and approach to concept albums present some of the band’s best and worst newfound qualities.
Previously, Anubis have been somewhat enigmatic in their concept albums: 230503 and A Tower of Silence’s ambiguous and poetic lyricism and expositional ambiance convey their respective narratives with subtlety, arguably to a point of obscurity. After 2014’s Hitchhiking to Byzantium, a more personal and emotional offering from the band, The Second Hand sees Anubis return to writing cinematic concept albums, but this time with a concept that is blatant from the off. A ticking clock, bleeping heart-rate monitor and croons of “James, open your eyes for me” set the stage in the opening title track, followed by numerous news reports regarding the critical condition of the fictional media mogul, James Osborne-Fox. Each track explores themes of corporate greed, political corruption, societal collapse, regret and the passage of time through reliving James Osborne-Fox’s destructive life in a comatose self-reflection; themes which are especially relevant in the world’s current political climate.
The narrative is conveyed both through lyricism and expositional spoken word that bookend the majority of tracks – both of which I find to be some of the weaker elements of the album. The Second Hand is deliberate in presenting this concept to the extent that it buckles under the weight of it: the immersion is often lost with narrative interjections and the lyrics often lack Anubis’ ambiguous charm in favour of an explicitness that feels cliché or ill-fitting. I feel that the refrain “It ends this way / All alone again”; the repeating imagery of petrification and isolation; the reprising motif and ambient exposition are excellent ties throughout the album, and do a fine job conveying the concept themselves without the need for the spoken word sections.
Anubis are undoubtedly at their most musically varied here. The three parts to ‘These Changing Seasons’ present a child-like innocence in each part’s ballad-esque softness, acting as foils to the war-torn ‘While Rome Burns’ and the apocalyptic ‘Pages of Stone’; resulting in some of Anubis’ most sentimental and aggressive songs both musically and thematically. The album’s token progressive epic, ‘Pages of Stone’, nudges the 17 minute mark and encapsulates some of the record’s best executed vocals, lyrical originality and solos from guitarist Douglas Skene. The main riff even sounds like something from psychedelic post rock outfit Kairon; IRSE!’s latest album, Ruination, set against doomsday organs.
Ultimately, Anubis are leaning from their atmospheric sound towards something harder-hitting, acting in parallel to the upfront delivery of The Second Hand’s narrative. Only in the first single, ‘Fool’s Gold’, does the band’s signature dreamy mesmerism reign supreme. However, with this variety brings an inconsistency in quality both between, and internally within, tracks: the proggy, hard rock sound in ‘The Second Hand’; ‘Blackout’ and the Dream Theater-esque ‘The Making of Me’ progress jarringly and feel lacking when sandwiched between other songs. On the other hand, Anubis’ first time dabbling with acoustic-heavy ballads has paid off surprisingly well overall. The captivating ending to ‘These Changing Seasons II’, with its triumphant guitar solo against the album’s main motif on piano, makes the song the ‘Goldilocks’ part of the suite; where ‘…Seasons I’ feels a little too twee with its clockwork momentum and ‘…Seasons III’ is distractingly technical in its final guitar solo. It’s especially disappointing when comparing The Second Hand’s finale to the restrained guitar solos that perfectly close the band’s previous two albums. To turn a phrase: less is more.
Since the vocals take precedence in The Second Hand as the concept’s medium, Robert James Moulding applies his vocals in accordance to the tone of each song effectively. He shines in the sassy delivery of the choruses in ‘The Making of Me’ and ‘While Rome Burns’, and the band’s tender vocal harmonies in ‘These Changing Seasons I’ and ‘…Seasons II’ are delightful; but it’s the highest note in ‘Pages of Stone’ where Moulding’s voice cracking in a split-second conveys more desperate intensity than at any other point – I would have loved to see more grittiness like that elsewhere. However the vocals are sometimes spoiled throughout The Second Hand by lyrical clichés encumbering them: the lines “Time ticks away” and “The seasons have changed / The daylight will fade” which convey the passage of time are the main offenders, but damn me if the latter doesn’t melt my heart in ‘These Changing Seasons II’.
The Second Hand’s mixing and production is the crispest we’ve seen from Anubis, especially the drums; though I suspect that the credit is more due to Steve Eaton whose drumming is at his tightest in this record. However, in giving the vocals breathing space, it’s the keyboards that have been sacrificed in the mix, making the album feel somewhat lacking in body. David Eaton’s lush, all-enveloping keys, strings and organs are usually the highlights of Anubis’ music, but here they’re either so far back in the mix or lacking in mid-frequencies that songs often don’t deliver their full potential impact, such as in the heavier sections of ‘Pages of Stone’, ‘The Making of Me’ and ‘The Second Hand’.
There are surprisingly few moments in The Second Hand that can be likened exactly to Anubis’ previous albums, both for better and for worse. While few songs emulate the band’s characteristic atmospheric rock, the optimistic ‘These Changing Seasons’ and the gritty ‘Pages of Stone’ and ‘While Rome Burns’ present new assets that Anubis can flaunt confidently. Though the socio-political concept itself is compelling, its heavy-handed execution results in the album’s more noticeable faults, such as the immersion-breaking exposition, some cliché lyrics and inconsistencies in songwriting.
Overall, The Second Hand is a commendable prog record but not without its weak points; those who have been captivated by Anubis’ old atmospheric style may find the album’s new direction alienating at first, but will find themselves growing strongly towards The Second Hand‘s gritty social commentary and heart-warming ballads over time.
The Second Hand officially releases May 23rd via Anubis’ Bandcamp