Album Review: The Chills – Scatterbrain

The Chills – Scatterbrain
(Fire Records)

I’ve lost count of the number of iterations of the Chills. Are we up to Ver. 100 yet? Seems it. Maybe the that’s a pub quiz question for music buffs and geeks. But what I can say is that Martin Phillips et al have been in my life since I was knee high to a Professor in my undergraduate years. When I wasn’t impersonating a poor student, I was doing shows on Radio Active. During that time, I was invited out to Avalon TV Studios to watch the Chills perform for some hideous live (pre-recorded) show that probably never aired. This was when Caroline Easther and Justin Harwood were still in the band, just. They’d just got back from a triumphant struggle to make it mediocre in the UK and 1987’s ‘Brave Words’ was still doing well on student radio.

Everybody has a Chills story. They have become the alternative soundtrack to our lives. We all went to their gigs, sung at the top of our voices, chanting the lyrics in drunken, rowdy slur-song. But I’m sure few of us ever quite realised the darkness Phillipps had fallen until we saw 2019’s ‘The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy of Martin Phillipps’. While things are on the up again, his health scare, the relief of recovery and the ongoing financial challenges of being a musician in today’s climate has provided something of an ominous backdrop for his creativity, especially this album, the band’s seventh studio album.

Actually, despite my earlier jibe the bands line up has remained pretty static and settled for a while now and includes a team with some serious musical talents. Keyboardist Dr Oli Wilson is a Massey music school academic, Erica Scally plays not only violin, but guitar, keyboards and does backing vocals. Then there’s the crazy live-wire drummer Todd Knudson, who’s a long termer, and new boy Callum Hampton on bass. As a unit familiar with themselves they’ve become a bit more relaxed, and that shows in the braver choices of material – talking about death and immortality on a pop record is ok now, it seems.

Phillipps has said that he’s even stepped back a bit to give his band room to shine occasionally. Apparently he was still writing the album during the recording of it – a surprise given Phillipps previous reputation as bit of a micro manager. But it’s an older wiser man who gives the space and trusts his band to work their own wonders. And it’s Wilson and Scally in particular, who get those get plaudits for their very clever phrasing and arrangements which are in the style of a Chills record, but also feel just a little bit new and different, too.

Another contributor to this album’s was big bad Covid, with the band just four days from finishing recording when it truly hit New Zealand. That set in motion several months of bouncing emails and sound files backwards and forward to Tamaki Makaurau-based producer Tom Healy for the final edits and tunings.

There’s an inevitable focus on mortality and those big, philosophical questions of life. Musically, there’s little change – the templates that provided structure for the strummy ‘Kaleidoscope World’; the darkly disturbing ‘Pink Frost’; the punk-tinged ‘Think I thought of Nothing Else to Think About’; the wry and spartan ‘Doledrums’; and the hook-laden ‘I love My Leather Jacket’ are all still solid.

Phillipps’ slightly ethereal, wispy, nervous vocals are once again front and centre and most songs have at least a peppering of those dinky-dye keyboards layered over them. However, this time there are more complex arrangements. You can definitely draw parallels right back to the work on the ‘Dunedin Double’, yet this album contains stuff that is definitely more mature and grown up in it’s production and overall soundscapes.

The cover art for Scatterbrain is the work of David Costa, also responsible for classic covers such as Elton’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ and Queen’s ‘Night at the Opera’. And with its obvious nautical references you can help comparing it to ‘Submarine Bells’. The lush strings and washes help create that modern kaleidoscopic underwater sonic vibe. The parallels are there in places, especially in the swelling sweeping sonics that provide the more grandiose parts of these songs.

The album opens in a dark place of some strength and mystery. The lyrics to the opener ‘Monolith’ are like an ancient druid’s chant “Honour the Monolith. Honour The Monolith”. It’s a song cloaked in tales of runes and ancient spells. Incidentally, a ‘monolith’, according to Webster’s Dictionary is “a single great stone often in the form of an obelisk or column. Or by way of example, a granite monolith may stand at the centre of the park.” A huge phallic symbol to power and patriarchy, perhaps? A garden ornament and a nod to a lost civilisation? Who knows. I can’t help thinking of Terry Pratchett’s book ‘The Colour of Magic’, for some reason.

The mid-paced ‘Destiny’ is a more little confronting “Destiny have empathy I can’t face this on my own… though I’ll make this voyage alone.” It’s clearly a reference to Phillipp’s trauma with Hep C and the impending legacy of the current pandemic. In Phillip’s words, he’s concedes to being “autarkic on the mend”, so this is a cathartic moment too, no doubt. The autarky theme is certainly re-occurring and even appears on the cover art, complete with its definition.

Then there’s the soft and dramatic ballad ‘Caught in My Eye’. I wonder if it’s about that chilling moment he found out that he had caught the disease. The song is a phone call with bad news. Images of the past flood over him, the realisation that he won’t be here to create more memories is overwhelming. But he remains staunch and philosophical. This is Phillips’ most poignant song ever, I think. It’s a literal eulogy moment: “I wont cry but there must be some other way of saying goodbye’.

That’s followed by ‘Your Immortal’, which seems to me to be sung from the point of view of a ghost: “Your immortal and there’s nothing I can share, I have to let you go.” In a dream, he visits a friend or family member and like the angels in the movie ‘City Of Angels’ who can watch but not touch or communicate, just levitating from above and watching.
There’s more depressive thinking in ‘Hourglass’, with “Black holes draining all the light away.”

A song like the title track, ‘Scatterbrain’ tackles miscommunication, fake news and frauded souls head on. I love the industrial machinations that flow under it, building a slightly sinister bed of menacing.

‘Little Alien’, in particular, feels the most intimate. It’s not clear who all this advice is for, but there’s wisdom and consideration whilst sacrificing nothing but a few words to history. The closing number ‘Walls Beyond Abandon’ is the very song for standing on the edge of the world, staring into the abyss and jumping off triumphantly. The final message is clear – embrace your future, no matter what comes, no matter how you react, no matter how prepared you are, it’ll happen anyway.

This review first appeared here:

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