Ah yes, another album about the ancient concept of death. Just don’t go into Lightning Cult’s new concept record, The Whole Pulse, expecting funereal tones and high-flying words about the inevitability of impermanence.
The musical duo, a combination of lyricist and virtuoso Mike Marchant and producer Luke Bern Carr (the latter of Storming the Beaches With Logos in Hand), isn’t an exploration of lofty ideas. Rather, it reflects on those perplexing emotions that stem from loss or teeter between our notion of death being something like defeat or something more celebratory. There aren’t any strict answers as to how to feel here, though, and the record is better for it.
Marchant began writing the record four years ago, at a time when death had become a bizarre constant in his life.
“I was exploring impermanence,” he tells SFR, “so it’s a big conceptual piece, really. It’s not supposed to be super-dark or upsetting, it’s supposed to be somewhat upbeat. A lot of us just don’t talk about these subjects.”
Carr and Marchant’s relationships to loss are readily on display within the tracks on Pulse. Even as it was still in development, Carr’s relationship to death began to evolve as he lost his father and several close friends. One can call The Whole Pulse a philosophical musing, then, like two people trying to figure out what just happened to the people in their lives—but don’t get it wrong: The record isn’t a bad time. Instead, it is an atmospheric, dreamlike journey made up of near-constant synths and reverbs and heavy on percussion; for such a heavy topic, the listening journey is surprisingly light.
Some of its biggest surprises begin right at the get-go.
Album opener “The Felt Tropics,” immediately jumps into a cosmic sound that builds into a more lush and wondrous atmospheric piece. Its slide into transition track “Orbiter” heralds more of that same synth and all but promises the listener a multitude of emotions. Standout track “La Brea” hits indie-pop expectations just so, while channeling a sort of discontent that isn’t too overbearing. Pulse becomes a welcome relief in experiencing the topic of death without getting into the minor-key maladies that often dominate records and songs exploring its tenets. Gary Jules’ classic cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World,” for example, feels almost sadder in sound than its intense lyrical content; look up anything from the late-stage Jawbreaker catalogue.
It certainly helps that Marchant’s vocals are fantastic, and he manages to keep his voice contained and focused while striking a satisfying balance between lyrics and notes. He channels his words with relative ease, never stretching beyond his described thematic intentions. Still, further down into the The Whole Pulse’s second act, musicality branches into more experimental aspects and an even a darker tone. It’s another welcome relief, an expression of movement and changes, and it builds a bridge into a third act that picks up the pace. “Deathless,” the record’s final track, clocks in at seven minutes and might seem anti-climactic given the journey we’ve just traversed, but Marchant and Carr find plenty of time and plenty of room to return to the bristling energy of the opening minutes.
Tracks like “Twin Moons” feel a bit repetitive in the percussion department, and one wonders how it might have sounded had the duo found some places to experiment with stripped-down sounds. Carr’s 2013 solo record Pigrow was, in places, a masterpiece in its minimalism—though one could make an argument that Lightning Cults’ arrangements on Pulse benefit its emotional core. Reacting to a world where a pandemic has made death more commonplace comes with big feelings. Whether a listener can consider Lightning Cult’s new stuff “pandemic art” is up to the individual, however, though it’s becoming more difficult to divorce art from public health these days as most work seems to be related to COVID-19 in some form or another.
The Whole Pulse puts its ideas first in creating a musical companion piece that would pair well with stargazing. Lightning Cult has managed to do something unusual while self-generating buzz for whatever they do next. Marchant says he’s already got between 10 and 20 new songs in the works.
“Aesthetically and tonally, I’m pretty stoked about the album,” Carr adds. “As much as I like crafting sounds, it was [Marchant’s] lyrics that really spoke to me. It’s in the performances. As much as it is a studio production, there’s a lot of emotional performance in there.”
“The pandemic added some weight to the whole thing. As we were kind of mixing and finishing this record we were living in a time when tons of people were dying every day,” Marchant adds. “Maybe the weight of that time was in the forefront. It ends up being cathartic, and hopefully it’s going to be for the listener, too.”