The aptly-titled fourth album by amorphous UK outfit The Kings of Frog Island marks a number of changes for the band. Foremost, IV is their first full-length without the contributions of guitarist/vocalist Mat Bethancourt of Josiah/Cherry Choke, and second, it’s their first album to be released not on Elektrohasch Schallplatten. Recorded at their own Amphibia Sound Studios II in Leicester over the course of the last couple years and released digitally to iTunes with a vinyl issue dependent on money raised through mp3 sales, the collection is also host to a few stylistic shifts in the band as well. Returning figures Mark Buteaux (vocals/guitar), Roger “Dodge” Watson (drums) and Gavin Searle are joined by Gavin Wright, Tony Heslop and a handful of guests – Ally Buteaux, Ian Piggin and Jim Robinson – and where their prior album, 2010’s III (review here), departed from the fuzz-soaked brilliance that arrived with 2008’s II (some of the finest British fuzz in the last 30 years, by my estimate), in favor of a more garage rock-sounding production – perhaps in part as a result of Bethancourt’s wandering interests; at least it’s easy to read it that way – IV makes an attempt to marry the varying sides of The Kings of Frog Island that have shown up over the course of the prior here albums and encapsulate the diversity of sound and mastery of flow that exist simultaneously in their work. To help accomplish this and aid in that flow, the 10 tracks of the 40-minute IV are presented as two evenly-divided vinyl sides (digitally, it’s two large files). Each clocks in at 20:19, with side A offering six individual cuts joined together as diverse jams and side B even more easy-flowing with four blissfully psychedelic pieces. Because it’s The Kings of Frog Island’s intention that IV should be taken as a whole, or at very least in halves, they’ve given a tracklisting so that each song can be identified, but for example, where “The Night Juno Died” ends and where “Weaving Shadows” begins at the start of side B is more or less up for grabs. I have it as where the drums kick in three minutes into the side, but really, you’re not supposed to know, and that winds up being part of the fun of the album.
I say “part,” because the bulk of IV’s appeal is the music itself. The Kings of Frog Island begin with a chime and a buzzsaw fuzz progression in “The Tenth Stone,” launching into one of the more driving stretches of the first side and the album as a whole, relying on an insistent rhythm and catchy chorus that does little to represent the full breadth of The Kings of Frog Island on their fourth studio outing, but engages nonetheless on an introductory level, vocals compressed, echoing and atmospheric as complemented by Ally Buteaux. The production on the whole doesn’t seem to be as loud as III, but the band works within their range to express a dynamic sensibility, moving from “The Tenth Stone” after about four and a half minutes in to “The King is Dead” with one of several transitional cymbal washes, keeping a quicker pace and desert-rocking chug to the guitar for (what seems like; again, all these separations are based on assumptions from listening) a brief instrumental that winds up in a synth line transitioning to “Witches Warning,” the first real showing on the record of the subdued side to The Kings of Frog Island’s sound. Soft, cooing vocals fade up while analog hiss, a quiet guitar line, snare vibes and bass carry a serenity that seems far removed from either “The King is Dead” or the opener yet still have come naturally from them. A spoken sample from Macbeth begins the transition to the more forward fuzz of “Volonte,” which features another choice chorus – perhaps the most memorable of IV – and a bassline pushing forward an instrumental swell that leads to a rich, fuzzy payoff. At 12:45, they move into the quieter “In the Watcher’s Blood,” which is kept in motion by the hi-hat and sampled birdsong, a wash of sunshine psychedelia in the guitar remaining peaceful despite, and side A wraps with “Shadowlands,” which is moodier in a classic and thoroughly British tradition, not nearly as directed toward upbeat fuzz rock as “Volonte” or “The Tenth Stone,” but emotionally affecting on a different level from everything else they here present, with contemplative plucked strings (ukulele maybe?) meeting a flange of electric guitar and accenting drum thud while the verse carries through to the more densely-layered chorus, another cymbal wash leading the way out of side A.
The Kings of Frog Island’s use of the cymbal wash, both as a transitional element and in general, is worthy of note, if only because they make it sound so damn beautiful. It could be that it’s a marker between the cuts on side A, or it could just be that I’m so taken by it that I’m using it as one. Either way, the fact remains that the band uses a cymbal wash effectively to elicit and earthy psychedelic feel in a way that fuzz, wah and reverb just can’t. Sure enough, a cymbal wash fades up side B with far-back guitars, and while, as I said earlier, I’m not completely clear on where “The Night Juno Died” ends and “Weaving Shadows” begins, the change in mood from side A to side B is palpable. IV takes a more patient, psychedelic turn, almost like quiet space rock, during a verse developing over the persistent drum line and resonant forward/backward guitar ambience. Seven minutes into the side, the guitars come forward for (what I believe to be) the start of “Eleven Eleven Eleven,” perhaps recorded Nov. 11, 2011, as basically a transitional solo drawn together by underlying ringing tones and the bassline to “Weaving Shadows,” but still part of a different movement. The difference is that unlike side A, which had breaks of silence between songs at least part of the time, there’s really nothing separating anything on side B, even as “Eleven Eleven Eleven” transitions into “Long Live the King” with just over 11 minutes to go – I wouldn’t even know where the closer begins except for the fact that the band released it as a video as a precursor to the album’s release. “Long Live the King,” at over 11 minutes, is the longest track on IV and takes up more than half of side B, but is a substantial achievement in more than just time, serving as the culmination for both the ambient psychedelia and the riff-rocking elements of the album without ever losing sight of the band’s organic sensibility or rich warmth of tone. I’ve said before that the vocals remind me of Lamp of the Universe, and that remains true on repeat listens to IV, but there’s more to the song than just that, the subtle swirl, low end depth and culminating wash building first and then coming apart to end the track and the album with vibing notes similar to that which started it. In essence, “Long Live the King” – both in answering “The King is Dead” and in drawing together the various aspects of The Kings of Frog Island’s sound – is a songwriting triumph for the band and the most singularly immersive moment on their fourth LP. As much as the band has ever had anything to prove, they did going into this record without Bethancourt, but they’ve emerged on IV with songs that maintain the band’s personality as they’ve presented it in the past while also expanding their reach without losing their sense of craft. It can take a little time to fully sink in over the course of the two 20-minute sections, but ultimately, IV provides a satisfying listen that intrigues even to its basic construction.
Tags: IV, Leicester, The Kings of Frog Island, The Kings of Frog Island IV, UK, Unsigned bands