While shoegaze artists were sometime pretentiously described as building “sonic cathedrals of sound,” not many of those records sounded like they were made in actual cathedrals. Step forward Northampton’s James Chapman, aka Maps. Unlike Chapterhouse, Slowdive and Ride, his is largely a guitar-free zone, but towering cosmic walls of trance-inducing noise are present and correct, if supplied by ranks of keyboards rather than endless feedback. What really strikes is this third album’s cavernous spatial quality. As synths tinkle, drum machines wallop, ersatz strings stir, analog chimes chime and Chapman sings softly — which is his chief register — the whole thing seems to echo through the chambers and vaults of some vast stone structure. You can practically hear the gargoyles.
Vicissitude is a lot lither than its predecessor, 2009′s Turning The Mind. Underneath the baroque electronic stylings on “Built to Last” there’s a “Planet Rock” rhythm, although Chapman clearly likes the song’s nagging synth melody so much he allows it to run on for a good two minutes after the song proper has ended, decaying into a spangly reverie. Elsewhere there’s an imperious boom to the single “A.M.A.” with jittering synths gathering in the distance — imagine Ladytron rearranged for a papal funeral. But the lyric is minor-key neuroticism, a plea for love or at least attention.
It’s not exactly a warm record. “Nicholas” sounds so insidious and practically medieval that it could have come from a Radiophonic Workshop album of horror themes, and Chapman’s interest in dislocation and broken communication makes this a necessarily oblique record. The nearest it has to a message is the refrain “Forgive yourself” on the delicate “This Summer,” a surprisingly commonplace thought for an otherworldly record.
Neither is Chapman’s voice the most potent of tools; the album could use more variety than his breathy, half-whispered vocals can supply. But then this is grandiose innerzone pop for the discreetly blissed-out listener. The last thing it needs is a human being getting in the way.