Recorded in a laboratory once used by Albert Einstein, produced by a man who last year released a concept album about the life and death of a pig and self-described as ‘a big bowl of romanticism and a rush of Rousseau-esque rhythms,’ Swiss-based English multi-instrumentalist Merz’ fourth studio effort, No Compass Will Find Home, already sounds like a contender for the most deliberately avant-garde record of 2013.
Thankfully, Conrad Ewart Lambert’s follow-up to 2008’s Moi et Mon Camion isn’t as try-hard as its sleeve notes would suggest. Opener “Arrows” is a gorgeously hushed flamenco number that quietly works its way up to a finale of tender strings and atmospheric choral harmonies; the ghostly echo-laden “Toy” and wintry “Goodbye My Chimera” hark back to the glitchy folktronica of his 1999 ‘ahead of its time’ self-titled debut; whilst “The Hunting Owl” is an achingly fragile acoustic ballad inspired by his brother-in-law’s battle with a brain tumour.
Rather unusually for a Merz album, there are even a couple of potential singles in the shape of “Credo,” whose low-slung bass-lines recall the brooding 80s new wave pop of New Order and The Cure, and the hook-laden (if slightly formulaic) “Judge,” which at various points echoes The Beatles, U2 and about a gazillion 90s Britpop bands.
But for those expecting No Compass Will Find Home to be a little more experimental, producer Matthew Herbert doesn’t completely abandon his ‘Mad Scientist’ tendencies, as evident on the industrial synths and ambient bleeps of 101 second instrumental “Lauterbrunnen” and the epic title track, which slowly builds from a sparse and introspective slice of folk-pop into a cinematic crescendo of crashing drums and cathartic wails.
In the wake of Alt-J’s Mercury Prize victory, it’s a shame that Merz’s window of opportunity for mainstream success appears to have passed, as No Compass Will Find Home is just as intricate, intriguing and intelligent as anything on An Awesome Wave.