For a record about journeying deep inside the darkest recesses of the mind, there’s nothing introverted about the Cleveland duo Mr. Gnome‘s new album, The Heart Of A Dark Star. Named for an evocative phrase in a Neil Gaiman book, The Heart Of A Dark Star is a bold and blustery hurricane of guitars, organs and voices, all swirling around in the night air.
It’s a raw, romantic sound that Mr. Gnome’s members — singer-guitarist Nicole Barille and drummer-pianist Sam Meister — have refined and expanded across several records, including 2011’s excellent Madness In Miniature. The Heart Of A Dark Star is the band’s first entirely self-recorded album, and that extra time and a more casual writing process adds up to a satisfying, conceptually ambitious work.
Throughout The Heart Of A Dark Star, many songs don’t truly end, but instead glide seamlessly into the next — carrying over melodic snippets or a lyrical phrase while connecting these surreal songs to larger statements about love, pain and a search for meaning in the unknown.
Take “Melted Rainbow,” which immediately establishes the colors, tone and orchestration to which Mr. Gnome returns repeatedly: Meister’s droning electronics and bit-crunched keyboards, militaristic snare-drum rolls and heavily distorted bass, swarms of buzzing guitars. It all forms a bed underneath Barille’s soaring voice, which clips and howls into the red as if it were captured with plastic Fisher Price microphones when she exuberantly chants the chorus, “We can’t explain just where we are right now.” After that peak subsides, Mr. Gnome segues directly into “Dark Star” — the first of many layered vocal-harmony interludes (“Folk Lonely,” “Fools,” “No Place Like Home”) that press a reset button between cascading climaxes.
Later, in the transporting “Light,” Mr. Gnome offers an icy, escapist chill-out to help listeners tune out the all-encompassing feelings. Under a dead, thudding pulse and minimal keyboards, the song pushes Barille’s off-kilter quirks and alluring harmonies front and center when she passionately sings, “Now we come back from the dark side / Tell me you wanna fly / Can you get down real low for awhile / Maybe for another mile?”
Then, in the anthemic waltz “Follow,” the music swells again as Barille unfurls another lasting, hopeful payoff: “Oh, I’ll be the one you carry on / Floating from outer space beyond / I’ll be the freak-out in your mind / I love you, I love you, I love for all time.” Whether its songs are bleak and primal, grandiose or seductively dreamy, Mr. Gnome delights in searching for the unexpected.