Vallens Continue Their Lynchian Worship on 'In Era'
Published Mar 15, 2021A crisis of identity has arguably haunted Vallens from their early days, so it makes sense they'd mostly step back from the guitars on this sophomore effort. Robyn Phillips was already reluctant and cautious in validating media evaluations that had the band pinned as a shoegaze act in press ahead of releasing debut album Consent in 2016, and half a year later they were showing off a hungrier, more corrosive version of their sound.
So when Phillips coos a line like, "Nothing like a new pain / Nothing like that old flame," over ethereal keyboard swells near the top of In Era's opening, titular track, we might rightly interpret it as a new guiding philosophy. By the end of the song she's inverting the lines: "Nothing like a new flame / Nothing like that old pain." Phillips's modernism is undeniable, but change also threatens the protagonist's representation. At the centre of the track, Phillips's narrator is offered a dance, but as they cycle through flames and pains, they get lost in the crowd invoked in the track's first line, dancing only with their anxieties.
If "In Era" conveys a preoccupation with the prospect of change, the album that shares its name is an attempt not just to navigate an overwhelming, accelerated culture, but to contribute something new to one. For Vallens, that means throwing out the drawing board; if Phillips was already turning phrases like "time will devour" on Consent, now it's an ethos that pushes the project to a constantly shifting aesthetic approach.
With Phillips having logged two years of piano lessons after Vallens released their Dimmed in My Display EP in 2018, In Era is guided more by keys and electronic production, pushing the band to some fascinating studies in atmosphere and unnerving, mercurial shifts, often spending the better half of a track building up a vibe before making an abrupt pivot at the climax. On "If I Don't," the band follows the still pulse of a phone toll into the loose swing of a trip hop beat before turning on a dime into a gallop that sets everything in motion; "Difference Repeating" is an ice palace of digital beats and chilly muted guitar notes, Phillips's voice gliding over all before everything gets scrambled like it transported to the Black Lodge waiting room, words converted to texture or concrete poems. They hang these left turns so often the unpredictability almost risks losing its novelty, but by the time we reach "Come Home" and its blown out, sludgy groove gives way to a guitar solo that sets everything ablaze, it still doesn't lose any of its heaving velocity.
It's not all new all the time, though; Phillips is building out a Vallens universe, and In Era is full of Lynchian twins: "Old Flame" explores alternative uses for a line from "In Era"; the penultimate instrumental "Opaque Undertow" gets its title from a line in "Sheer"; on "Ingrid," Phillips sighs through a tribute to Ingrid Bergman, mother to Isabella Rossellini (a.k.a. Dorothy Vallens, the Blue Velvet character the project takes its name from); "While You Are Still Waiting" offers a sequel of sorts to Consent's "While You Wait"; and "Sin So Vain" gives Consent's seven-minute epic of the same name a more condensed rearrangement that's actually less tense and more sun-dappled.
These gestures establish a continuity that subverts the ahistorical rush of the temporal context In Era scrutinizes, all while mirroring its constant shifting. At its core, it's a document of a project's attempts to keep up with a culture in flux, and they burned the instruction manual to do it. Still, Vallens find their footing.
(Hand Drawn Dracula)