Album Review: Gang of Youths – ‘angel in realtime’

Posted: by The Editor

Gang of Youths - Angel in Realtime.png

Much of Gang of Youth’s sprawling last LP Go Farther in Lightness was dedicated to ruminations on frontman David Le’aupepe’s father’s life. On the band’s followup angel in realtime, Le’aupepe focuses not only on his father but on his fatherland, both lyrically and musically, infusing the band’s Springsteen-meets-National sound with samples of David Fanshawe’s recordings of indigenous Polynesian music, reflecting Le’aupepe’s heritage. What results is an album that sounds genuinely new and invigorating, an album that pulls from all of Gang of Youth’s disparate influences to create something that feels like nothing else. In short, angel in realtime is the band’s third straight masterpiece in a row, and without a doubt their most impressive yet.

In July of last year, well before angel in realtime had even been announced, the band released the total serene EP, and Le’aupepe noted that its somber second track “unison” “really signals where the music is headed on the new record…. Here we sample and introduce the work of David Fanshawe, who travelled to the Pacific Islands in the 1980s and recorded the most extensive library of indigenous Pacific music anywhere in the world.” The key word here is introduce, as the sounds of Le’aupepe’s ancestral homeland recur throughout the new record. The band also promised that angel in realtime would represent a shift for the band, a new sound; on that point, they were only half right. While the record does expand Gang of Youths’ sonic palette in all directions, it also manages to seamlessly blend these new styles in to their arena-ready rock and roll.

The album’s leadoff single “the man himself” best displays this, layering piano and violin over one of Fanshawe’s recordings of a Cook Islander hymn. Breakbeat drums signal that this Gang of Youths is not only newly restrained, but also new revitalized, with a verve and a sway to the song that recalls the jaunt of Go Father in Lightness‘ most radio-ready single “The Heart Is a Muscle.” When the strings and piano return for the bridge, Le’aupepe delivers one of his most controlled and crystalline vocal performances before letting loose in one final chorus. The bridge also brings into focus the central theme of the record: Le’aupepe’s coming to terms with his father’s death from cancer and its ramifications on his family (including the discovery of two half-siblings in New Zealand). “Dial back home at least once or twice a week,” Le’aupepe implores his future son before advising him to “be sure to see them a lot more than I did mine.”

The preceding “forbearance” is cut from a similar cloth, built on jittering breakbeat percussion and delicate piano. The track rises and falls in fits of orchestral bliss and electronic sputtering before disintegrating about halfway through to a sparse piano line under Le’aupepe’s smooth voice. Gorgeous chanting resurrects the track before it blossoms back to a colorful hook. This combination of electronic beats, string arrangements, and Fanshawe samples help create the record’s unique palette, and the record’s middle section best embodies this new phase of the band. Both “tend the garden” and “the kingdom is within you” are written from the elder Le’aupepe’s perspective. The former begins as an ’80-synth-soaked pop jam before careening hard left into a mournful dirge before exploding into an orchestral-meets-electronic bridge; the latter has one of angel in realtime‘s most dancehall-ready beats and very possibly Le’aupepe’s most exuberant, most confident vocal performance to date. Horns rise to meet a choir over shuffling piano and electronic beats – the whole thing should, by rights, be a mess, and in the hands of another band it would be. But it’s a highlight on angel in realtime, and it flows perfectly into “spirit boy,” easily one of the best songs in Gang of Youths’ unimpeachable catalog.

A plodding beat and an acoustic guitar make way for perhaps the LP’s most memorable lyric: “God died today.” Synths wash in and, a minute into the song, the full band launches into the sort of stratospheric, cathartic chorus that made songs like “The Frankest Sighs, the Deepest Shadows” and “Say Yes to Life” fan favorites. It helps, too, that Le’aupepe, always a more-than-capable vocalist, is clearly just showing off in the song’s hook, soaring into a gorgeous falsetto. Sampled choirs harmonize in the song’s jam-packed bridge over buzzing synths. Go Father in Lightness was a maximalist effort, one on which Gang of Youths threw every ounce of their creative selves into the mix; angel in realtime is almost overstuffed, crammed with so many sounds and quirks and samples that the whole thing feels nearly overwhelming. It goes down so easily, though, that every listen merely peels back another layer.

Still, there are songs on angel in realtime that are a bit more traditional in their structure. The first song the band ever released from angel in realtime, well before it was announced – before total serene had even been announced – was the rollicking rock-and-roller “the angel of 8th ave.” The song’s got the same driving energy as tracks like “What Can I Do If the Fire Goes Out?” off Go Father in Lightness, the closest to Springsteenian grandeur the band gets on this kaleidoscopic record. The album’s got its subtler moments, too, though, tucked away on the back end. Slotted in between “spirit boy” and “forbearance” is the simple, piano-based “brothers,” the most straightforward track on angel in realtime, both lyrically and musically. With no more accompaniment than a catchy, repetitive piano line, Le’aupepe explains the familial revelations that inspired the record’s narrative, introducing the listener one by one to each of his siblings. It’s a moment that, while less immediately captivating than the more jubilant songs on the album, help ground the whole thing and allow for some time for the listener to catch their breath. It’s buoyed, too, by a deceptively catchy melody.

The penultimate “hand of god” serves a similar role, allowing for a brief comedown after the high of “the man himself” before it flows into the seven-minute “goal of the century.” It has the solemnity of a hymn, anchored by its staggered chorus of “halle-, hallelu-, hallelujah,” and driven home by the choir that echoes the chorus the final time it’s sung. The closing “goal of the century,” for its first minute, seems to pick up that thread before piano is drowned out by samples, beats, and strings. “Say Yes to Life” closed out the band’s last full-length with their most triumphant and self-assured song from a lyrical perspective; “goal of the century” is, undoubtedly, the band’s most celebratory track on a musical level. At the end of such a dense album, musically and lyrically, “goal of the century” is a letting go of all that weight. “You wanna live in the open,” Le’aupepe croons at the apex of the track; if angel in realtime is any proof, Gang of Youths are living in the open, and they’re reveling in the freedom of it. Not only is angel in realtime the best album of the band’s career, an album fully realized and fully human, it’s also one of the most creative, most heartfelt, and most moving albums in memory.


Disappointing / Average / Good / Great / Phenomenal

Zac Djamoos | @gr8whitebison

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