“I have to, have to, have to let go/Of total control.” That’s how Brent Knopf begins Prophet, the ex-Menomena frontman’s sophomore release with Ramona Falls. It’s an appropriately contradictory introduction to an album that, musically, strikes a gorgeous balance between restraint and cosmic expansion, but vocally suffers from just too much control.
Down to seven backing musicians from the 30-or-so who helped Knopf render his solo debut, Intuit, a symphonic who’s who of Portland indie players, Prophet crafts intricate pop growers from layers of guitars in varying stages of cleanliness, drums that march and clatter in turn, and crisp keyboard progressions that serve as the melodic and emotional spine of almost every track. The reduced lineup allows lush arrangements like “Spore” and “Sqworm” to grow organically from a single looping piano phrase or guitar lick without ever spiraling out of control, which is a testament to Knopf’s matured position as composer.
But Knopf’s lyrical honesty remains one of his shining features as a frontman. Consumed cover-to-cover in a cohesive arc, Prophet plays like a scatterbrained indie-rock opera delivered in earnest, lonesome transmissions from Knopf’s first-person avatar. The narrator traces symbols of love and acceptance across crappy house parties and lifeless galaxies, loses comrades, loses himself, and by closing track “Helium” he finds the peace to tell us he’s “patiently waiting for [his] savior to come” though earthly love may ebb and flow. The story is compelling, but too often here does Knopf’s consistently gentle, passive delivery get in the way of the words he’s saying. Vocals on songs like “Divide By Zero” and “If I Equals U” are so controlled that Knopf exudes the vibe of a man reading from a lyric sheet instead of gushing from his heart, and “Fingerhold,” an otherwise effective slow build to an interstellar guitar spaz, is burdened by half-hearted choral cliches like “the world is my oyster.”
Similar to Miike Snow‘s recent sophomore release, Happy To You, Prophet‘s challenge is offering driving vocals confident enough to bear the gorgeous, intsa-pop productions swelling behind them. Songs that do overcome this obstacle are glorious. “Spore,” the strongest and most ear-wormy track on Prophet, works beautifully when the natural tenderness of Knopf’s spacey vocals complement the vast, expanding universe of sound around him. Late track “Brevony” is an experimental standout that works the softness of Knopf’s voice into a menacing whisper whenever a chorus of stomping, crunching metal riffs is imminent. The bust of headbanger energy is a shocker coming from the Portland indie rocker—and that’s why it’s so welcome. Knopf’s voice occupies a noncommittal middle range between the crushingly vulnerable and the carelessly confident. The Ramona Falls record where Knopf chooses a side and really does let go of total control—of his emotions, of his voice—will be the most welcome surprise this talented composer can offer.