Birds of Avalon didn't intend for Uncanny Valley to be their second LP and the full-length follow-up to 2007's riff sizzler, Bazaar Bazaar. In fact, they spent several weeks with legendary producer and analog master Mitch Easter (R.E.M., Pavement, Wilco) in his Greensboro studio late last year, putting a finessed record of sharp hooks and expansive sounds to tape. Following a record label hang-up, though, they found themselves with enough ideas and energy for another session. Easter's tape machine in tow, they headed home to Raleigh, where they converted their basement practice space into a temporary studio. They plugged in, played and let tape roll. Good decision: Distilled and extracted largely from those basement jams, the 11-track Uncanny Valley disconnects the party line on Birds of Avalon—big-rock revivalism with guitar'monies and post-Zeppelin vocal howls—almost completely.
Relative to its predecessor, Uncanny Valley is, first and foremost, a psychedelic rock record. Sure, Bazaar Bazaar had its outbound moments, like the sitar tide of "Think," the quirky organ introduction to "Superpower" or the percussion-and-chant romp of "Lost Pages from the Robot Repair Manual." But the charging rhythms and vigorous vocals of "Bicentennial Baby" or the tightly wed riffs of ex-The Cherry Valence instrumentalists Paul Siler and Cheetie Kumar on "Horse Called Dust" magnetized attention. Thing is, those same elements generated binding though complimentary comparisons to contemporaries like Black Mountain and predecessors like Thin Lizzy and Black Sabbath. Uncanny Valley makes it clear that's not where Birds of Avalon belonged.
Uncanny Valley doesn't veer entirely clear of the sorts of songs and hooks that earned Birds of Avalon a, well, flock in the first place. But it does suspend them in a rarified, hypercolor air that has more to do with dub music and jam bands—albeit, happily, those of the German '70s variety—than Deep Purple. Take the potential barn burner "I Never Knew." Two years ago, Birds of Avalon would have raced through a song like this, turbocharging through every turn. But bassist David Mueller purrs here, his voice drifting above guitars that bend a step-wise melody into perpendicular shapes. Sheets of noise ripple through the mix like smoke. The rhythm throbs but doesn't charge. Where Birds of Avalon's organ fills once pushed ahead, the synthesizer now simply shoots through it all, astral trash sailing past. A muted, funky bass line winds through "Peregrinations," while an acoustic guitar and concert snares gallop from one wave of distortion to another. And there's the perfect "Eyesore," which floats a staccato riff and a quick countermaneuver through reverb and delay, splitting them across channels. They surround Kumar and Craig Tilley's clenched voices like sentinels. The band misdirects often, shifting through rhythms and tones, working more for atmosphere than anthems. Audacious instrumental interludes, intros and outros blend those environments, creating an album in the most classic sense. That is, this isn't a collection of moments tied together. It's a singular space lined by landmarks.
Uncanny Valley will likely alienate more old BOA fans (or The Cherry Valence hangers-on, for that matter) than it will attract new ones. After all, this is a patient record, with seams largely hidden from view and various scenes gently massaged into one vibrant 31-minute diorama. While the argument that it's not as entertaining as Bazaar Bazaar isn't completely invalid (there is no clenched-drink sing-along as strong as "Horse Called Dust"), that idea is reductive and removed from the bigger picture. And here the bigger picture proclaims that Birds of Avalon only get better the more they remove themselves from the retro incisiveness that first landed them notice.
Birds of Avalon plays The Pour House with Whatever Brains and Hammer No More the Fingers Saturday, Aug. 1. The 9 p.m. show costs $8 or $15 with the purchase of Uncanny Valley on LP.