It’s hard to believe that it’s been half a decade since Brooklyn-based trio the Antlers released Hospice (Anti-, 2009), a record that catapulted them to the top of the indie world and cemented them as one of the hottest bands to watch in the upcoming 2010s. The follow-up, 2011’s Burst Apart (Frenchkiss), quietly surpassed its predecessor in both critical and commercial success, helping the Antlers take the next step in proving they were the real deal. After three years, two solid EPs and a label swap, vocalist Peter Silberman, multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci and drummer Michael Lerner have returned with their most experimental effort to date.
Familiars begins with Palace, a track highlighted by its brilliantly anthemic horn arrangement. Silberman gets a chance to showcase his vocal range on this one, displaying a falsetto that makes you wonder, if only for a second, whether the voice you’re hearing is that of a female guest vocalist. It isn’t. Silberman is just that good. On Doppelgänger, the band rolls the dice in the other direction, and it pays off big. It is eerie, haunting and beautiful, a piece that should be playing at the most smoke-filled jazz lounge in the most depressing scene of an old black and white drama. Surrender is probably Silberman’s strongest vocal performance here, and the Dark Side Of The Moon-esque Hotel (the Antlers have a bit of an obsession with Pink Floyd) impresses as well.
Too often though, the trio rest on their spacy and airy, horn-infused, falsetto-driven laurels. Tracks like Intruder, Director and even Revisited (despite its smart use of cello and a full horn section) do nothing to advance the album’s objectives, which are well established by the time this album hits track three. Actually, Parade is the album’s most surprising moment, a particularly straight-forward indie rock track on an album that otherwise keeps its distance from the listener. It certainly works as an effective re-engaging tool to usher in the album’s strong final act, but it also sticks out for it’s comparatively inviting simplicity. It does though serve as another example of one of Familiars‘ common themes: when the Antlers take surprise risks, those risks pay off, but when they get complacent, the album often borders on mundane and repetitive. While Burst Apart seemed like a natural step forward from Hospice, Familiars is a more of a trumpet-driven detour, albeit one with some moments of brilliance.
By the time the big, anthemic horns come back at the end of Refuge, capping off the album full-circle by revisiting one of its strongest moments, the listener is left with the notion that the band has taken their musical themes to every possible corner, even exhausting them at times. Nevertheless, Familiars‘ ultimately succeeds in delivering the third consecutive full-length gem from the Antlers.