By: Michael Jones
Antarctica’s breakup in 1999 was a crushing blow to the cult audience that worshipped and analyzed every note of the 104 minutes and 6 seconds of music the band recorded during their short but influential career. New recruits continue to be initiated, and this rabid fan base seeks out whatever information it can find, while holding out hope that a rare track or a hitherto undiscovered live show will be unearthed in some dusty vault.
Just months after Antarctica split, singer/guitarist Chris Donohue and drummer Glenn Maryansky went on to form Ova Looven with James Minor (guitarist for like-minded National Skyline) and keyboardist Steven DePalo, and self-released their debut album, 58:34 (named, like the two Antarctica releases, for the album’s length), in 2003. While the album did not go completely under-the-radar, many fans awaiting post-Antarctica projects were completely unaware of the record’s release.
58:34 easily endeared itself to Antarctica fans, while carving out its new fan base at the same time. Anyone expecting Donohue and Maryansky to follow in their former band’s footsteps were, well, right. Sort of. To wit: 58:34 begins right where Antarctica left off. That’s not metaphorical, either. I mean precisely where they left off: The album’s first song, “Power Windows,” a jaunty new wave number about extreme paranoia, uses the same synth patch in the intro as the last song on 81:03. This hook-laden song would not only make Grandpa Numan get out of his hovercraft wheelchair to dance with joy, but it also proves that Ova Looven is serious about taking music into the 21st Century.
The infectious “Invisible Triangle” is built around DePalo’s propulsive and amazingly arranged programming, which provides a stable but shape-shifting platform for Minor’s elegant guitar figure, which builds slowly over the course of a few measures. Donohue’s angular vocal phrasing is a modern update of the New Romantics, so much so that it’s not hard to imagine an alternate history where this song preempted the 80s-era British Invasion and set American bands up as the harbingers of the New Wave movement. “Sugar Rain” saunters along at a gently measured pace, lulling the listener with gentle guitar plucks, subtle electronic embellishments and soothing vocals. “All Gates Open” continues the bewitching spell with a hearty four-on-the-floor beat, bouncy bass line and a vocal melody so catchy you could, like, get herpes from it.
Chris Donohue’s voice is the aural center of Ova Looven, and all the instrumentation is locked in orbit around it. Whether recorded dry, multi-tracked, drenched in shimmering chorus or altered by a vocoder, his vocals are gorgeous and set the band apart from its contemporaries. Donohue shines brightest on the beautiful “Lust for Svirda”: His layered vocals are surrounded by delicate guitar chimes, empty-highway synth pads and Aphex Twin-esque snare rolls. “Puzzle Drip” contains Gregorian chant-like phrasing in the first verse that is marvelously executed, as are the backing tracks, which provide a bleak and lonely landscape for Donohue’s vocals, which, during the breakdown, sound not only exhausted but also downright world-weary. Attempted by any other singer, this trick would sound fey and pretentious. In Donohue’s capable hands, however, this brief moment is one of the most rewarding parts of the song.
While Ova Looven are masters of the New Wave-revisionist pop song, brevity isn’t really their forte: most of their songs are in excess of five minutes, some linger just below the ten-minute mark, and one, the epic (and perplexingly titled) “ee-19,” hovers right over thirteen minutes. DePalo again weaves multiple hooks, building them up, allowing them to play harmoniously with one another, and then breaks them down again at just the right times. Minor’s guitar is hypnotizing, and the drum programming anchors the song while introducing new variations every few measures. Donohue’s vocals, veiled behind a vocoder, are driving and instantly addictive. The song changes course around the nine-minute mark, slowly and blissfully unwinding from its own former, feverish pace. “Blood, Wine & Elevators,” the album’s darkest (and best) song, lays Minor’s gothic guitar riff (which would make Robert Smith turn green with envy under his white-face make-up) over a thick bass synth, while ghostly keyboards swell and fade over the 808 programming. Donohue’s vocals float hauntingly over the top. A masterpiece.
With Ova Looven currently in the studio preparing their anxiously-awaited second release, Japanese label Catune will be re-releasing their debut in early 2004, but with a new title: 58:34+10:22. What are the extra ten-and-a-half minutes? Bonus tracks, my friend. Catune is aware that the best reissues come with the coveted unreleased songs. Minimalist in execution, but high in emotional impact, “Sunrise” draws the listener in with drowsy bells, a tremolo guitar and the customary angelic vocals. “Digital Kiss” opens with Minor and DePalo’s sinister riffs slinking around one another, paving the way for Donohue’s robotic vocal effect (and quite cryptic lyrics) and some sleek drum programming. Both songs are instantly addictive, but lack the heft of the album tracks, so it’s easy to see why they were left off of the full-length. As bonus tracks, however, they provide a glimpse into the more experimental and playful side of the band, and, as such, justify re-purchasing the album.