I first encountered High Places completely by random, wandering into a live performance at SxSW in 2008. The band was doing things in completely new and different ways, and i found myself entranced by their sound. Here it is, two years later, and they have just released their second full-length album.
The band has grown, yet stayed the same. I suppose that is a good thing, and i am very pleased with this release. What i mean is that High Places have expanded their sonic pallet while not abandoning the things that made them unique. In particular i am speaking about their rhythms, which are something that set them apart. Robert Barber builds their beats out of strange samples of clattering, jingling things. It sounds primitive, tribal. It still sounds like that here, so this element of their uniqueness has stayed the same.
The band is also defined by Mary Pearson's delicate voice, almost half lost in the mix. That is still the same, but if anything she sounds more confident now. I suppose that it only natural, that after a few years of singing she feels more comfortable with doing so, and i feel like that shows in the music on this record.
As to what is new? Well, let me briefly go over the ten songs on this record, and perhaps you will see what i mean.
The Longest Shadows starts with a chugging guitar bit over spacey percussion that grows more echoed until it is a thumping rave-like beat. A keyboard layer comes in, and Mary Pearson sings under a mass of echo. The rave-like beat continues in On Giving Up, here coupled with a fuzzy guitar layer. Pearson sings clearly here, but she sings confidently, almost like Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine). Very nice.
She's a Wild Horse is a sparse, quiet, fairy tale type of song. The drumming is light and at its most minimal, and Pearson is heavily echoed, with an added "oohing" layer in the background. The guitar is phase shifted and flits back and forth between the channels, which makes me dizzy as i listen to this song on headphones. It's a pretty song. High Places give us an ambient interlude next. The Channon is a mass of burbling sounds, the synths really overpowering their strange clattering rhythms on this song. This is the most generic thing High Places have ever done -- this song could fit on a dozen or so albums that i own, where i cannot say that for anything else in their catalog. Still, it is not a bad track.
The next two songs are vaguely similar, slow tunes. Up first is Canada with grinding guitar and the most normal-sounding rhythms i have heard from High Places (wait -- that is a kick drum, isn't it! Is Barber playing a normal drum kit here?). Pearson's voice is clear, in layers. Constant Winter has more looped-sounding percussion coupled with a trebly post-punk guitar line. The chorus, which features the guitar really grinding away, is very nice on this song.
On a Hill in a Bed on a Road in a House is another light, fairy tale song. The beats are clattering and fascinating, but Pearson's voice is a distorted drone repeating "in a ___ on a ____ with a ____ that a ____" infinitely. The vocals get really old after a little while.
Another instrumental is up next. This one is called Drift Slayer and starts with the guitarist (whoever that is) channeling Windy and Carl. After a minute, a very typical High Places cave-fire electronic beat comes in, and the guitar and the beats combine very nicely. This is an excellent instrumental.
High Places do a dub song next. The Most Beautiful Name features beats right of a King Tubby song, complete with supple bass and that lethargic reggae high-hat tapping. Pearson is up front, clear at times, and then fading into the echo, in a typical dub fashion. I like this foray into classic dub from the band. Nicely done.
And finally we wrap things up with a new wave tune, When It Comes. The guitar is great here, one guitar line fussy and distorted while another one chimes like The Edge on The Unforgettable Fire. The typical High Places beats are sped up here, driving this song at a nice pace, almost like a mid 1980s dancefloor hit. This has become my favorite High Places tune ever. More like this, please.
Now, the first difference i noticed on this record is that there is a lot more guitar, whereas their debut was mostly synths, primitive electro beats, and voice. The guitar is not used so heavily that it has not become the lead instrument, but it is an added textural element. I like how it expands their sound, and i am curious as to how it meshes live. Who plays the guitar? The record doesn't really say... Perhaps someday i will have the chance to see them live again, and figure that out.
I also like Pearson's new found vocal confidence. On the first High Places record, her voice was hidden with echo and layering. Here it steps out on some songs, never overpowering the rest of the music, but instead standing confidently. She has a nice voice, and i am glad to see that she now seems to believe so as well.
On the whole, High Places vs. Mankind shows a young band still experimenting, still expanding their musical palette. I like the direction they are going in. A musical career is a journey, and i am still very curious as to where they are going to go next.