Guidebook To Lamaland, Lama titled their debut album, released just nine months ago, as if self-consciously highlighting their singularity – welcome to a whole new musical world, seemed to be the message. Sure enough, that record was an intriguing one: Guidebook’s varied blend of moody multi-instrumental nu-jazz, flickering electronics and cinematic chanted wordless vocals may not have been startlingly innovative but they nevertheless made for an engagingly layered work. Whilst that debut certainly evoked other artists, perhaps most significantly (and indeed unsurprisingly) Jaga Jazzist – the celebrated collective of which Lama lynchpin Nils Martin Larsen is an erstwhile member – Lama’s second outing eschews much of the subtlety and genre-marrying variation that made Guidebook distinctive in favour of familiar post-rock guitar patterns that have begun to sound formulaic even when coming from the genre’s innovators themselves. It’s a significant self-imposed handicap, but one which the band just about overcome.
Lama’s evolution can perceptibly be traced to Guidebook’s solitary live track ‘Fighting Your Shadow’, which establishes the musical foundations for the recurring melodies and musical phases that dominate the semi-conceptual follow-up. Whilst Lama essentially remains a vehicle for Larsen, the band has swelled over the interim between records from a one man show to a more muscular six-piece, this expansion paradoxically heralding a far more restricted musical palette. The album’s introductory framing effort ‘Beginning’ opens with gentle but sinister strumming guitar that grows in urgency as wordless vocals intone a hymnal melody almost archetypal in its simplicity, the layering building to walls and wails of pounding guitar. And that’s where the problems start. It’s impossible to listen to ‘Beginning’s quiet/loud build-up without noting Mogwai’s fifteen-year monopoly, impossible to tune in to the mesh of chiming guitars that recurs across the album without thinking of Explosions In The Sky, or to let the otherworldly vocals that accompany xylophones and a bow juddering on steel strings on ‘Ending’ wash over you without a wearied nod in Sigur Ros’ direction – even Larsen’s distinctive vocals are strongly reminiscent of those that adorn much of his similarly multi-instrumental countryman Kaada. The building blocks of this album thus sound instantly familiar.
And so, after listening to Look What You Made Us Do through a couple of times on a bus that snaked down Norway’s west coast – piped down failing tinny earphones as fjords and hulking grey rocks flickered into lush green forests or pretty fishing towns – and feeling nothing, no suggestion of post-rock’s supposed proximity to nature, its identity as ‘landscape music’, I was ready to dismiss Lama as peddlers of second-hand wares that Mogwai and Sigur Ros have themselves diluted – the terrifying suspense of ‘Like Herod’ and soaring ethereality of ‘Svefn-g-englar’ cheapened by years of rehash and sentimentalising. But something was still nagging me, and emerging crystalline from speakers in the comfort of home Lama’s virtues began to condense. Despite my scepticism, Look What You Made Us Do does manage to avoid pastiche, and the reason is its scale, or rather its lack of it. Its modesty. Its simplicity. Post-rock’s widescreen tendencies bred the pompousness and emotional manipulation that draw greatest criticism to the genre – listeners tired of yet another ten-minute build-up climaxing in inevitable clamour –the critical relief that met Sigur Ros’ curveball recent single ‘Gobbledigook’, and the disappointment that followed when the accompanying album turned out to be more familiar a case in point. Whilst ‘Gobbledigook’ broke the cycle by not actually being ‘post-rock’ anymore, Lama manage to give the familiar building blocks a freshness by packaging them with brevity and plainness.
With only the closing track clocking in at much over four minutes Look What You Made Us Do strips away epic tendencies to rather hint at greater depth through what remains unsaid – the most striking moment on the album is also its briefest, the appropriately named ‘Wakeup Call’, which seems to pack an impressive build-up into it’s 1:42 runtime. Drag this out to eight minutes and it would doubtless be turgid, but as something glimpsed and then lost as soon as found it feels breathtaking and essential, as if it has achieved something remarkable just in making an impression. It’s not just the length of the songs that makes the oscillations impressive and the familiar sounds stomachable, it’s also the overall minimalism. Guitar motifs play out rudimentary structures, vocals, when they appear in lyrical form, disdain grand portentousness to be delivered in a hushed indie-pop lilt, and melodies are gradually enforced over the course of the album as they are revisited in subtly fluctuating forms. Epic grandeur is still there, sure, but it is almost seen in tantalising snippets, like going in and out of a room where Lord of the Rings is on and catching occasional, disconnected scenes – you can still sense the mythology and expansiveness behind it all, but it’s absorbed indirectly and you don’t have to sit through three hours and eight endings. Look What You Made Us Do, this record is titled; as if the band are disgusted with their own creation. They have no reason to be.
First published on nomusicmedia, 2009