AU - Both Lights

An album bursting with ambition and sonic invention.

Label: The Leaf Label

Rating: 8

‘Both Lights’ is the third full-length from Portland Oregon pop experimentalists AU, and it is an album bursting with ambition and sonic invention. The duo of multi-instrumentalists Luke Wyland and Dana Valatka explore every inch of their musical influences and landscapes over 11 tracks of compelling experimental sounds.

AU have been compared to other experimentally minded US groups like Animal Collective in the past, but ‘Both Lights’ is a far bigger and bolder affair than their previous work, bringing to mind the sound of Battles at their most propulsive. It certainly takes some chutzpah to name the opening track on your album ‘Epic’ but in this case, it is a fitting title. Beginning with an impressive drum solo, the rattling drums and discordant trumpets of guest Colin Stetson battle against each other before coalescing into a superbly rousing finish. It is all deeply stirring stuff, and a staggeringly powerful way to begin.

It is clear that AU are a band with an impeccable grasp of dynamics and atmosphere, which can be heard throughout the instrumental pieces that make up a large part of ‘Both Lights’. However, the more traditional tracks featuring Luke Wyland’s Morrissey-like croon are less successful, and ‘Get Alive’ and ‘Crazy Idol’ are both songs that are pleasant but uninspiring. Fortunately, AU don’t do uninspiring for long and the rest of the album is brilliantly deranged as they flip from different sounds wilfully and, more importantly, thrillingly.

There is a lull though, before the frenetic middle section, and it is perhaps the record’s loveliest moment. ‘The Veil’ is a basic piano piece discombobulated and stretched into something truly beautiful and haunted by melancholy, the piano glitches and stutters and never quite flows yet somehow that makes it all the more compelling.

There is a real danceable quality to parts of ‘Both Lights’, and ‘Solid Gold’s’ bouncy rhythm is hard to pin down but wonderfully funky and almost carnival like. ‘Why I Must’ carries on the euphoria and its bonkers mix of frenetic crashing piano and drums is almost cartoonish as it builds to its hyperactive crescendo. It is breathlessly exciting stuff.

After the ecstasy follows the comedown, and the closing suite of songs is welcomingly tranquil. Guest vocalist Sarah Winchester’s voice is beautifully soft and pure on the plaintive ‘Old Friends’, while closing track ‘Don’t Lie Down’ ends the album in a fittingly widescreen manner.

There has always been a tinge of the avant-garde to AU’s music but on ‘Bright Lights’ they appear to have harnessed that experimental nature with their most compelling collection of songs yet. There is a lot to take in here but certainly a lot of fun to be had in the process as well.