The Manichean, Whispers
Music or theater? That’s the conundrum that hits me most frequently when listening to The Manichean’s debut EP, Whispers: is this a band, or a theater troupe? Going by the EP itself, the answer may be “both.” It may be comprised of actual songs, but Whispers strikes me as being far closer to an old-time radio play than an “album,” even of the concept album variety; I can’t help but think of old broadcasts of The Shadow, in particular, with Orson Welles and company evoking mysterious dread and wonder. There’s a strong theatrical sensibility running through these songs, something that pulls the band over into Decemberists territory and blurs the lines between musicians and actors.
Unlike with the Decemberists, however, that line-blurring never makes me cringe and think of frustrated Drama Club geekery; The Manichean also possess the musical chops (and just as critical, the restraint) to be able to craft some truly mindblowing songs. Right from the start of intro track “TheManichean,” with the crackling, booming thunder that quickly shifts into speeding, near-frantic, darkly alluring rock, the atmosphere is uniformly sinister and mysterious, and that feel continues through the rest of the EP. “The Unfortunate Circumstances Surrounding Zoe” is murky and dramatic, and while singer Cory Sinclair’s muttered ramblings before the song proper would probably irk me in another setting, here they work surprisingly well. While it’s definitely a rock band at heart, I love the way The Manichean incorporates strings and horns, layering them delicately in all the right places instead of shoving ‘em right in your face.
The best track here is also the one that’s probably closest to a true “song” — third track “Lacerus” is utterly mesmerizing, a desperate-sounding tale of death and temptation (I think?) spun out over a tense, fast-paced, almost ska-like indie-rock groove, and it’s freaking perfect. The horns sound appropriately mournful, co-bandleader Justice Tirapelli-Jamail (who’s the “music” part of the question I posed at the start of this, by the by) cuts loose awesomely, with nicely edgy guitars roaring along next to the driving, locomotive-like drums. And over it all, Sinclair alternately croons and howls, coming off like Placebo’s Brian Molko minus the sci-fi vibe.
The final track, “The Baptism (of Water, of Desire, and of Blood),” though, is actually a bit of a sneak. Not only is it 12 minutes long, but it makes huge dynamic shifts midway through — the song starts off in an extremely cinematic vein, with rain sounds and slowly-building layers of jangly guitar and strings beneath the enigmatic lyrics, but at about the 5:20 mark, the tempo drops, and a slow, deliberately-picked guitar steps in, changing the mood completely. It pulls the same trick again around 8:30, when the guitars start to jangle and ring out once again, seemingly fueled by the bitterness in the vocals and lyrics, and finally softens into a quiet coda of strings and spoken words (some in a language I don’t recognize; Portuguese, maybe?) before the curtain falls.
Despite the three-tracks-in-one thing, however, it remains utterly compelling throughout, pulling you along as bits and pieces of the story are revealed. And there is an underlying story, apparently, although the band doesn’t give up much in the way of a concrete plot. From what I’ve gathered, this EP is just a first step along the road — I’m eager as hell to see where these folks head from here.