If you can handle a bit of insanity, life in I Monster‘s world must be rather fun. After some initial false starts with the absurdly wonderful debut album These Are Our Children (1999), from which came the 2001 hit Daydream in Blue, which grew into the initial Neveroddoreven album in 2002, which was then remixed and “remodelled” in 2004. So it wasn’t until 2009 that we finally saw a follow-up.
A Dense Swarm of Ancient Stars is a complex offering, with strong hints of the absurdity and insanity that had peppered earlier releases, but also with a lot of musical maturity. It opens with the daft march of The Circus of Deaf, an amusingly humble title that references the early works of The Human League but takes it to another dimension entirely.
Lead single A Sucker for Your Sound follows, a beautiful song with a delightful vocal. It might not have been entirely apparent from the first track that in amongst the craziness, I Monster are entirely capable of exceptional music, but it should definitely be clear from this song. It’s every bit as good as anything on the preceding album.
There’s nothing really bad on here, but some of the tracks don’t stand out quite to the degree that you might have expected after Neveroddoreven. Goodbye Sun is one of the ones that struggles a little – it’s a nice song, and it has some fun lyrics and instrumentation – it just doesn’t quite grab you by the throat like some of their earlier tracks. In spite of including some fun impressions.
Cool Coconuts is similarly daft, a celebration of a tropical paradise in which bugs are parading up and down like the military. It’s soft and sweet, pleasant, and entirely silly, but somehow also pretty forgettable.
The same is not true of Lust for a Vampyr. When I Monster get things right, they write catchy songs with silly lyrics and pull in great vocalists, and then produce them in daft and unpredictable ways. Lust for a Vampyr is a great example of this – a catchy pop song about wanting to fall in love with a vampire, with some eccentric underground jazzy elements and Eastern European fiddle hidden in amongst the pop production. This is great.
Other tracks are less comprehensible, like Mr. Mallard. Fun, and delightfully silly, but difficult to fathom. But on the whole, A Dense Swarm of Ancient Stars is a conflicted album, the mark perhaps of something that took a long time to come together, and maybe lost its way a couple of times en route. When it’s good, it’s exceptional, but a lot of it doesn’t quite get to that level, however reserved you try to be with your expectations. So it is with She’s Giving Me the I. It’s fun, and still infinitely better than most of the things on the charts, even back in 2009, but it just doesn’t quite seem to work as a song, unfortunately.
But for every pair of tracks that doesn’t quite work, there’s a pair that does. The hilariously named Escape from New Yorkshire and final single Dear John are both great. Yes, there’s a lot of jazz in the first of them, but if you grin and bear that, it’s a pretty good near-instrumental (there’s a bit of counting and a small amount of singing towards the end, but that’s pretty much it). Dear John is a delightfully silly song about an accountant reaching the end of his tether.
If this album was a bit odd already, from this point it just gets odder. First up is the catchy and very silly Inzects, full of processed insect vocal sounds, and that blends into Inzects 2 – The Mutations. If this were a film franchise, that would be a predictable move, but it isn’t – it’s an album, and that all seems a little surprising.
Time for something more sensible? Kind of – the next trio of tracks is subtitled the Sickly Suite, and opens with the lovely How Are You?, opening up a series of beautiful songs where the silliness seems to have been toned down a little. That merges disconcertingly into the sixties-inspired Out of the Shadows, another sweet piece with complex effects and a lovely vocal. Then Gone tells us about a killer – things never stay sweet for long around here.
The film analogy works well, actually – A Pod is Waiting is heavily science fiction-influenced, as it lists out people who are about to die and explains that they’re actually going to be put into some kind of pod instead. It’s still fun, and it’s still silly too.
So is the closing track, a robot cover version of Simply the Best, which works surprisingly well. It’s an appropriate closing track for an album that’s sometimes beautiful, always fun, and eternally silly.
It would be nice to have a more contemporary follow-up from I Monster, other than the intriguing prog rock side projects that have been turning up in recent years, but maybe they said everything they want to on that front back in the decade from 1999 to 2009. It’s a shame, though – while I’m not fully sure how much I like this album, and it may not be, um, The Best, it does have some very fine moments.
You can still find A Dense Swarm of Ancient Stars from all major retailers.