Every three years or so, the stars align and Indianapolis’ fabled folk rockers Joshua Powell return with an LP that somehow topples its predecessor. Of course, I use the term “folk rockers” incredibly loosely – anyone familiar with Powell knows they haven’t been a full-on folk rock band in half a decade. I suppose their 2018 record, PSYCHO/TROPIC, had some folksier “moments,” but overall, the genre-bending 11-track opus was a great sonic evolution leagues ahead of 2015’s Alyosha. It felt like the quintessential JP album at the time, and yet, they seem to have outdone themselves once again with Skeleton Party.
While PSYCHO/TROPIC touches on such territories as progressive, electronic, indie pop, and even world music, Skeleton Party hones in particularly on this psychedelic rock sound that was really only sampled occasionally up to this point. The end result is this searing, heady rock and roll record that feels like a constant journey through time. It’s a new era for Joshua Powell, and there’s no better way to usher in this new era than with the mood-setting album opener “Sad Boy at the Skeleton Party.” It serves as the preview into just one of the record’s different vibes, because, as is true with anything else, for every yin there must also be a yang.
And even though Skeleton Party is Powell’s most focused effort yet, there is still a tremendous amount of variation throughout. One recurring element that kept grabbing my attention was the album’s Western-leaning tendencies, which appear on the verses of the driving “Cannabis Rex” and again in the second half of the autobiographical “Decoder Ring” before coming full-fledged into the foreground on the album closer and highlight, “White Lodge (Fire).” Another is the phenomenal guitarwork throughout: whether this comes in the form of roaring ‘70s-inspired solos, such as with “Cannabis Rex” or the eerie, witchcraft-themed “Nine of Swords;” or it comes as tone, like one that rivals ‘80s-era U2 on the chorus of the mythical “Coral Castle;” or even when it encapsulates this part-flamenco, part-mariachi vibe such as on the trumpet-infused closer, there’s always something compelling going on here.
Perhaps most impressive about Skeleton Party though is the seamless oscillation back and forth between calmness and intensity, many times taking place on the same song. Take “Rainbow Trout,” which starts out as a slow-burning rocker but eventually builds to this crushing bridge where a cathartic scream rings out, before the song dies back down and comes to a close. Or “Hole Mesa Fangs,” a seven-minute epic which starts out as a relatively-straightforward retro rocker before evolving into this meandering, hypnotic outro less than halfway into the song’s runtime. Or consider album highlight “White Lodge (Fire),” a lengthy rock opera that feels like it could be the soundtrack to a Spaghetti Western yet stays relatively subdued through much of its six-minute lifespan, before culminating in this vicious, bombastic stomp to punctuate the record. It really does come back to that idea of yin and yang.
The latest from Joshua Powell sees the Indy-based rock collective venturing further into the abyss with a wild, stimulating journey that is unsettling in the best of ways. Like PSYCHO/TROPIC before it, Skeleton Party is a holistic listening experience, best digested in one sitting devoid of distractions. Where PSYCHO/TROPIC gave listeners a glimpse into the great unknown, Skeleton Party is way out in left field sonically, yet it somehow still manages to feel more complete, in addition to boasting more standout individual moments as well. How can all of this be possible, all at once, one might ask? The only way to truly find out is by taking a listen for yourself.
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