“I’ve never been here before.” That’s a sentiment shared in “Difference Repeating,” one of the stand-out tracks of In Era, the sophomore LP from Vallens, a Toronto-based trio fronted by singer, guitarist and keyboardist Robyn Phillips. It serves as an able summary of the album as a whole, in that it’s somewhat new terrain for them. Their debut LP (2016) and follow-up EP (2018) were much more guitar-driven than this outing, which emphasizes keyboards, bass and synths.
Released two weeks back, In Era is a moody and mercurial outing, dramatic in sound, style and vision. Some critics apparently lump them in with the “shoegaze” craze, but I hear them more as trip-hop noir. They don’t etch dreamscapes so much as cinematic vignettes filled with shadows and a little light. It’s intense and propulsive, the kind of music that reveals new depths with each listen.
I first heard “While You Are Still Waiting,” their second single, in Apple Music’s algorithm-driven New Music Mix, where it was sandwiched by Justin Townes Earle’s and Dawn Landes’ decade-old (but just released) cover of Dolly Parton’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” and Lushlife’s “Depaysement.” My first thought, to be honest, was that Curve had reunited. (My second was that Apple Music must think I’m nuts.) In any event, they share a certain sonic similarity with that ‘90s-era British alternative band, though I doubt Phillips and bandmates Devon Henderson (bass, synth, keys, drum machine) and Colin J. Morgan (drums, percussion) are familiar with them.
A fair number of other, both direct and indirect, influences can be discerned in the grooves. I described them to a work colleague as Opal minus guitars, but better comparisons are likely Portishead, Massive Attack and – lack of guitars be damned – Sonic Youth. The music rumbles, mumbles and, often, swells high like a tsunami pushing to shore. It’s guaranteed to consume you, in other words. I hear more recent antecedents, as well, including Anna Calvi and Bat for Lashes, whose songs possess a similar theatrical flair. (Phillips’ voice – though a few shades darker – also reminds me of Calvi’s.) Patti Smith’s aura also makes an appearance, so to speak, in several spoken-word passages, including on the closing track, “Sin So Vain.”
In any event, as I mentioned above, Phillips’ guitar isn’t prominent on much of In Era – which makes it all the more powerful when, as in “Come Home,” it does erupt. Call it addition by subtraction. (It’s a true tsunami-like moment.)
All in all, In Era is a very good outing for a band that, from what I’ve read, sees itself as being perpetually in transition. Listen once and you’ll listen twice and, soon enough, you’ll find that you’ve whiled away the day with it.
Here’s a 25-minute video of them performing five of the songs in studio:
The track list: