On Breton's second album, War Room Stories, the brief - electronic sounds and organic instruments combined, vocals alternately soulful, anthemic or quietly enraged, found sounds, dance rhythms - is maintained, but the parameters are expanded significantly. Listened back to back with their debut, Other People's Problems from 2012, the leap in sophistication of both songwriting and production is striking. One main difference between that album and this one is that they worked mainly in Berlin, out of their usual London haunts. Also, singer/guitarist Roman Rappak composed and arranged orchestral parts for five songs, which were then recorded by a 44 piece orchestra in Macedonia, an ambitious plan that is executed with perfect assurance.
The first song, Envy, is further evidence of their widened scope, as it is very nearly a sunny pop song, a fact that will likely surprise those who think they have Breton pegged. There are even steel drums, coming on like rare sunshine in the alleys of Brixton. "Cos you're a tourist/There's nothing wrong with that," Rappak sings, almost tossing off the words, "What you never could've noticed/Is how your bags were packed." Of course, it's never that easy: "It's how the odds were stacked against you/You're only here as long as they rented it to you." The song also has a tricky prog underpinning that keeps you on your toes while demonstrating a new nimbleness to the rhythm section of Adam Ainger (drums) and Dan McIlvenny (bass).
Envy leads into the darker realms of S Four, all ticking rhythm box beats and pizzicato strings until Ainger's drums kick in and the song finds its footing, eventually arriving at an epic sweep courtesy that Macedonian orchestra. Legs & Arms also has plenty of sweep, along with a stomping swagger slightly reminiscent of Edward The Confessor from the debut. Rappak's vocals are processed to a thin stream of static, and the lyrics are slightly threatening: "I've found a way of walking without sound/What scrapes the skin/I'll weigh you up/I'll weigh you in." Somehow in this forbidding atmosphere Breton manage to inject hooks by way of Ian Patterson's keyboard line or in the background vocals, further signs of their expertise in building a track.
Got Well Soon was the first track leaked from the album in late 2013, it's doomy synths a perfect accompaniment for the grimly hopeful video created by the band. The little film tells the tale of a suicidal teen rescued by a would-be home invader, a pointed example of how some of the most important connections in life have randomness in their DNA. Speaking of DNA, the song has antecedents in the chattering keyboards of Talking Heads and the witty swing of Dennis Davis's drumming on Bowie's Fashion - good bones indeed.
The Macedonians - conducted by a man named Igor, apparently - return in the reflective Closed Category, its refrain of "Stay poor, spend more," undercutting the lush orchestration. National Grid's fleet rhythms and driving bass are surrounded by clouds of synths and the insinuating tone Rappak adopts to sing "Well we haven't got a school and we haven't got a name/And they're struggling to count us now," lends a further edge to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere. The two-tone police siren that ends National Grid provides a direct bridge to Search Party, which seems to take place in the same burned-out civilization. This time, the the air of casual violence is leavened by the strings, and the tolling bells in the fade out brighten the mood as well. Maybe there is "hope for us," to quote the chorus of Breton's terrific 2012 single, Population Density.
302 Watchtowers is sadly lyrical and may well be the most sheerly beautiful song on War Room Stories, with gradually accreting layers of electronics and vocals. Brothers starts off similarly, and just when the album seems to be miring down slightly, it takes another turn toward dance-pop. Between the percussion, the vocal effects and the catchy chorus, remixers are going to have a field day - as they often do with Breton's music.
The album ends with 15 Minutes From Now, which alternates static moments with the band at full gallop, strings soaring overhead, in an optimistic show of strength. The ultimate message of the song, and War Room Stories as a whole, maybe boiled down to "if we all stick together we'll be alright," but it's Breton's clear-eyed acknowledgment of the complexities of sticking together that lends teeth to their worldview. Most humans have no doubt that they need a society of others to survive and perpetuate the race, yet that doesn't stop a notable proportion of our planet's inhabitants from stabbing their kin in the back in some fashion or another. Perhaps another version of the message would be "accept dependence but be wary." And the way the album ends with 30 seconds of mechanical noise - film running out of a projector? a ventilation system struggling to function? - somehow conveys the idea that these War Room Stories are far from over.
The album comes out digitally on 2/4 and physically on 2/11, and their North American tour begins in Dallas on March 16th, touching down at Glasslands in Brooklyn on May 16th. If all goes as usual, the show will feature visuals edited live by Ryan McClarnon. Breton sell out to 1,000's in Europe - catch them in an intimate venue while you can.