Death and the Penguin aptly compare themselves to artists like Minus the Bear and Everything Everything—but with the shades of the intersecting complexity that Animals as Leaders, Nova Collective, and TesseracT do so well. The English post-hardcore/math rock/indie quartet's debut LP, Anomie, is ultimately a commandingly multifaceted statement. It builds around “themes of love and loss, memory and perception, the personal and the political;” these sequences demonstrate creative instrumentation and fetching songwriting in each measure. You won’t always know where it’s going, but you’ll be hooked every step of the way.
Part of Anomie’s charm comes from its most delicate and dreamy moments, like “Hospital Song,” the opening track. A brief hymn of sorts, it finds lead vocalist Tobias Smith singing lines like “Calling out for a nurse / I'll never die in a hospital” with angelic desperation over somber keyboard chords and subtly distorted effects. It’s a chilling introduction that paves the way for similar bursts of sparse beauty. Take the haunting acoustic ode “Driftwood (God Loves a Bird of Prey)” and the admittedly more energetic closer, “Bones,” for example. The latter's urgent percussion and guitar chords cascade around piercing poeticisms like “And I wish I could deny / The cries that breathe you back to life” wonderfully. It’s inclusions like these—as well as comparable moments scattered around several other tracks—that reveal Death and the Penguin as richly affective songsmiths.
Elsewhere, the band skates the line between dense intricacy and simplicity very well. For instance, “Misha Lives” is a proper British pop/rock gem—evoking a bit of Field Music and The Last Shadow Puppets in the process. “Strange Times” veers a bit more toward stadium fervor (complete with chants of “Lost in a mind at war”). “Was it Kindness?” offers perhaps the greatest dynamics on the disc, juxtaposing a heavenly piano ballad core with periodic shifts into sleek rock chaos.
Of course, the group demonstrates true technical musicianship with more transparently sophisticated and varied arrangements as well. In fact, both “The Calving Shuffle” and “Leatherface” implement some aggressive punk attitude in the midst of their hectic guitar counterpoints and off-kilter rhythmic shifts. It results in surprisingly adventurous and bold compositions. Likewise, “Space 1998” finds bassist Andy Acred leading the troupe with some very tricky progressions before “Colour in Me” sees Smith and guitarist Chris Olsen exchanging tight patterns in-between notably catchy melodies. Drummer, Phil Gadsden stands out and shines on “Abyssinia.” His alternating styles—both in terms of pace and intensity—ensure engagement and focus as the other (relatively mellow) elements move around him.
Anomie is a triumphant record from start to finish. Where many bands struggle with range and consistency on an LP, Death and the Penguin manage both with flying colors. The fact they can implement a multitude of styles not just on the album but on an individual song is immensely impressive; especially considering this is their first full-length outing. As a result, they present a mixture of skill, creativity, and determination that warrants the acclamation of as many listeners as possible.