ALBUM REVIEW: Bliss Society by Karl McCann

Karl McCann is a singer/songwriter from Liverpool who has been involved with various indie/alternative bands since he was a teenager. He has performed across the UK and Europe, supporting bands like Scouting For Girls and Apartment, and has featured on various radio stations. Aside from his involvement with dreampop duo Lights That Change and side projects like Sophisto, he has been releasing solo material for the last decade. He’s built a sizeable fanbase via gigging and his prolific output since his debut album Naturealistic, back in 2012.

This album, Bliss Society, consists of twelve tracks and is Karl’s second release of 2022, following the Carbon Copy EP. Album opener Natural Disease is a good example of his unique style; plaintive strummed acoustic guitar and understated yet compelling lead vocals that meld with the texture of the music rather than dominate it. Karl performs the acoustic guitar himself as well as singing, joined throughout the album by a number of cohorts enriching the sound through varied instrumental contributions. This song is given a haunting cello line in the second verse (courtesy of Fiona Nightingale), bringing to mind Nirvana’s Something In The Way and the more ornate balladry of Elliott Smith.

After this strong start, Obscure Verse is even better, instantly grabbing the listener with a superb Vryll Society-esque guitar riff (played on acoustic) soon bolstered by a meaty drum beat and McCann delivering a blissed out, captivating vocal. This is nicely contrasted by a relatively heavier section which shows the influence of grunge and alt. rock bands amidst his folk and shoegaze influences. It’s the way these eclectic influences fuse together into a seamless whole which form the secret of McCann’s music.

Love Is A Burden is another example of this, blending the dreamy and melodic with angular chord changes and brief moments of dissonance, always resolving after building effective musical tension. With the left of field harmonic choices and the solemn sound of cello once again, the song expresses a deep melancholy with unsettling conviction.

The six minute Forever Lost Control maintains similar contrasts but is rather more upbeat, in tempo at least. The pulsating chug of acoustic guitars interweaves with simple but effective piano lines (River Jackson) and subtle synths completing the sophisticated soundscape. McCann’s vocals are again mesmerising, the vocal melody crystal clear despite being low in the mix, a neat trick.

Purify Your Dreams is another album highlight, this one in 7/4 time, showing a prog rock influence (though Pink Floyd rather than Yes). Over this angular rhythm, McCann delivers a spectral vocal, propelled by an urgent acoustic motif that locks perfectly with the beat. This is contrasted by a return to majestic melancholy, Turning Blue like a floating cloud of sound passing by, the vocoder harmonies adding a touch of the avant garde.

Make A Wish is the album’s epic, clocking in at just under ten minutes. It immediately intrigues with an enigmatic low end riff set at a deliciously languid tempo. This creates a compelling ambience over which Karl’s vocals weave a mesmerising, mournful melody. It brings to mind something as solemn and powerful and Joy Division’s The Eternal or Echo and the Bunnymen’s Over The Wall. It gradually builds into a colossal wall of sound, combining fuzzed up guitar (that sounds like the amps have been slashed with a razor blade, an early Kinks trick) with dreamy, echo drenched guitar lines. The final minutes have a quiet majesty about them, a thudding beat emerging to drive the forceful momentum till the very end. This heady mix of the sonically beautiful with the raw and the raucous creates a divine dichotomy, bringing to mind Sonic Youth circa Sister and Daydream Nation.

X Marks The Spot is a different beast altogether, an upbeat dreampop track given an exotic, seductive vibe with its vocoder-infused vocals, Karl joined by Nerissa Waters to great effect. This song nicely captures Karl’s natural gift for coining a memorable melody, akin to someone like Lee Mavers of The La’s. The sweet vocal harmonies are counterpointed well by a rootsy acoustic guitar riff and the end result is a superb piece of alternative/indie pop.

Neon Rainbow keeps the bar high, another hazy, gently psychedelic acoustic driven song, the guitars locking into a loping groove that provides the bedrock for another ethereal lead vocal that captivates till the end. An even more ethereal, ghostly vocal features on the following Azure Sky, built around an insistent guitar motif. It’s lilting melody weaves a hypnotic spell, contrasted by an unexpected burst of saxophone from Andrew Clarke.

The penultimate song Chateau instantly captivates with Forever Changes-style, crystalline picked acoustic guitar. The relatively sparse backing, augmented by subtle synth strings, allows McCann’s otherworldly vocals to come to the fore and results in one of the most beautiful and haunting highlights of the album. It also captures his almost Nick Drake-like abilities as a guitarist, with some particularly impressive playing towards the end. The gentle refrain, “Why you looking down?” recurs and the sadness in the music seems to provide the answer.

This sense of poignancy is maintained by the album’s understated finale, Preserving. Consisting of a minor key arpeggio-based progression, it paints a desolate but moving soundscape, the musical equivalent of a cinematic fade out and so an apposite way to conclude.

Overall, this is a consistently excellent album from a singer songwriter who has honed his style and artistry into something unique and authentic. Combining influences from shoegaze and the more psychedelic end of prog rock with alternative folk and grunge, McCann brings it all together with consummate songwriting craft. The result is a very strong set of songs that emotionally connect yet retain an air of mystery. Bliss Society will surely stand as one of the year’s best albums and perhaps will gain McCann the wider recognition his music deserves.

VERDICT = 9. 1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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