It’s hard not to dread Antiphon, Midlake’s fourth LP: The build-up has been excruciating, for all the wrong reasons. Following their 2010 folk-prog reinvention The Courage of Others, these ambitious Texans (led by chief songwriter Tim Smith) buckled down for a lengthy tour. By the time they made it back into the recording studio, that album’s brooding magic had dissipated, and after two years of dead-end sessions and false-starts, Smith unshackled himself from the band in an acrimonious split. Without Smith’s guiding force, is this even Midlake?
But democracy sometimes has a way of revitalizing a band’s sound, especially when the players are this fucking good. (Remember what happened when Peter Gabriel left Genesis?) Without being anchored to Smith’s brilliant but singular vision, Midlake became sonically liberated, writing and recording the new batch of material that ultimately became Antiphon in just six months. The result is the most absorbing Midlake album to date: 10 lush, cohesive tracks that maintain the band’s warmth while also journeying toward weirder waters — from the spooky psychedelia of “It’s Going Down” to the hypnotic Medieval prog of “Provider.”
We’ve seen glimmers of the band’s expert musicianship on previous albums, but never like this: Within the swirl of mid ’70s synthesizers, flutes, bass and electric guitars, the band is led by McKenzie Smith’s limber drumming, which alternates between Fleetwood-styled minimalism (“The Old and the Young”) and jazzy expansiveness (“This Weight”). Though Smith’s distinctive mumble is missed, de-facto new frontman Eric Pulido is an all-around warmer, more expressive singer. His earthy tenor holds together the album’s shifting sound, offering an emotional depth sorely missed on Courage.