In Conversation is a feature in which the senior staff talk about a recent record we’re listening to. Not exactly a review, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: two music nerds having a conversation about an album with all the tangential nonsense, philosophical wanking, and hopefully insightful commentary that implies. This outing concerns the latest release from one of the most storied and enduring bands to emerge from Our Thing in the past two decades…
Alex: A new Covenant album isn’t really a tough sell around these parts; we’re both longtime fans of the band, and perhaps more than any other band of the Futurepop era they’ve done the best job of not compromising their musical identity while still managing to put out a record every couple of years. To wit, all a Covenant album has to do to please me is be sufficiently Covenant-like: if it possesses the majesty and Swedish stoicism I associate with the group I’m pretty much sold. Leaving Babylon achieves that within three tracks or so, and consequently I can say I like it. It’s a Covenant record, right?
With that in mind, I can sort of set aside my general sense of enjoyment and actually dig into the album a bit. My initial impressions haven’t really shifted at all. It’s pretty much a direct line sonically from the last two records, Skyshaper and Modern Ruin: all sleek European futurism, EBM so hyper-evolved that it sort of eschews the genre altogether, with beat-heavy songs fronted by Eskill’s dependable crooning. The noodliness of Modern Ruin is still here in dibs and dabs although reigned in somewhat, and even the numbers that don’t really have club appeal feel very structured to me. It’s more of a mood thing I guess, this is exactly the record I was expecting Covenant to deliver in 2013, and that’s both a good and a bad thing I think. How’re you feeling about it at first blush?
Bruce: Yeah, after the first pass or two it’s definitely falling square in “this is what a latter-era Covenant album sounds like” territory. If you set up a Venn diagram of the points where each of Northern Light, Skyshaper, and Modern Ruin intersected you’d probably have 98% of Leaving Babylon plotted out. Off the top of my head I do feel as though it’s righted the band’s course somewhat from the past two records: the over-production which tried to hold together Skyshaper‘s erratic compositions is instead used to crisp and tighten edges Kraftwerk style, and while they’re not all winners and it’s still too early to say for sure, I feel as though a number of these tracks will have more staying power than Modern Ruin‘s.
Okay, so like every Covenant record from United States Of Mind onward, there’s a pretty clear distinction between Leaving Babylon‘s club tracks and its ballad-type numbers. Let’s address the former first. “Prime Movers” seems to owe a lot to “We Want Revolution”, both in Eskil’s vocals and in the contrast between a distorted and constant beat and a clean melodic synth line. While I’m not sure if “Prime Movers” has as much immediate club potential as “We Want Revolution”, I think I enjoy it more than its predecessor, which hasn’t aged well to my ears. It has nice ebb and flow and again, I feel as though the super-sharp production is highlighting song’s strengths rather than covering over flaws. Thoughts on that or other club bids like “Thy Kingdom Come” and first single “Last Dance”?
Alex: “Thy Kingdom Come” is straight up my business. As weird as the harpsichord sound used at the beginning seems at first, it actually ends up making the whole seem more regal in that way the best Covenant club songs have been ever since “Theremin”. They’re just so good at injecting import via those huge sweeping choral sounds. “Last Dance” sounds like it’s channeling the minimalism of Europa a bit on the verse, but then the choir cosmic busts in on the chorus and suddenly you’re lamping with Captain Eskil on the bridge of a doomed starship as it plunges flaming into its final battle, you know what I mean? Covenant is fantastic at making these giant portentous sounding tracks, and that’s always been where a lot of their club appeal comes from, at least to me.
Speaking of which, I kinda wish there was more club stuff going on on here, although I’m not altogether surprised there isn’t. A few songs could sorta pass I guess, but I doubt anyone will be reaching beyond the aforementioned for that purpose. I can enjoy numbers like the chilled out “For Our Time” and the grand title track (both collabs with Daniel Myer before he left the band) on their own terms: as noted their charms are a bit subtler, while sounding no less like Covenant. There are moments like “Auto-Circulation” where it seems like they’re shooting for the middle ground between between the band’s reserved European sensibility (as evidenced by the lyrical reference to “2D”) and their grandiose dancefloor numbers, but it’s kinda less than the sum of it’s parts.
From the looks of this more people have had a hand in writing this record than any other album by the group. Eskil, Joakim, Myer, live members Daniel Jonasson and Andreas Catjar all contribute, hell there’s even a cover (“Not to be Here”, originally by Dimbodius) on it. Do you think perhaps having all these fingers in the pie affects the overall feel of the record at all? I’m undecided.
Bruce: Yeah, it feels pretty open-ended, but I think that’s working out well for Leaving Babylon. This really does feel like Northern Light 2.0, with the same everything-and-the-kitchen-sink mix of aesthetics (which we decided was aging pretty well). While not all of the slower jams are working for me, I’m finding that things are concise and not as indulgent as Skyshaper even as they’re poking around in new territory. If this is a more democratic Covenant album, it’s still efficient.
I think the curveball track that really stands out for me is “Ignorance & Bliss”. It starts off a bit like Praise The Fallen era VNV, a simple flat beat with a gurgly arpeggio and some “big” vocals, but as soon as the lead guitar (!) comes in it feels like nothing less than a Simple Minds-style 80s anthem. And I like it. I really, really like it. I feel like something like “Ignorance & Bliss” is what Covenant were aiming for with Skyshaper but missed, and now we’re seeing that being combined with some classic Covenant club jams.
Speaking of “classic” Covenant, for all of our talk about how Covenant are like Slayer in that you recognize a new tune from them instantly, Covenant have now released as many latter-era open and catholic records as they did “classic” LPs which worked within a very specific framework (United States Of Mind‘s more subtle moments might even feel more important today now that the abrupt shift from Europa to trance territory has been smoothed over by history). Using Leaving Babylon as a vantage point, how do you think Covenant have aged compared to the other bands of their era? Can you imagine Covenant returning to the more streamlined and uniform sounds of Sequencer or Europa anytime soon? Would you want a throwback record like that at this point?
Alex: Well, going with our big four of futurepop (Covenant, VNV, Icon of Coil and Apoptygma Berzerk) rubric, I would say that Covenant come out on top, based purely on what I actively listen to anyways. Icon of Coil haven’t been active for the most part, VNV kinda lost the plot, and we all know what Apop has been up to, while Covenant has been consistently producing albums that, for whatever their perceived faults are, still sound like Covenant (mostly). Would I want them to make another like Sequencer or Europa? Well, yeah, sure I would, but that’s not really a thing I give a lot of thought to. You can’t go home again right? Leaving Babylon sounds enough like Covenant to scratch the part of me that itches for what they do, and there’s nothing definitively bad on it. Compared to some of their peers who have either worn their schtick out or made ill-advised attempts at crossovers it’s comforting that they’re still essentially the same band. Lowered expectations and all that.
Haha, it’s funny, going back and looking at what I’ve written, I think I’m coming across as way more critical of the album than I actually am. I guess part of that stems from how much of my enjoyment is based on personal intangibles and associations, and I really don’t feel like I can express those properly. Let me sum up: this isn’t the best Covenant album, but it does have a decent number of good tunes and I’ve enjoyed listening to it. Will I be rocking these songs in two or three years? I would guess that with one or two exceptions probably not, but hey, with my music consumption habits that’s becoming a pretty rarified quality anyways. It’s middle of the pack, in the best possible way. How you feeling about it overall?
Bruce: I’m pretty close to that evaluation. Not to go all Patrick Bateman, but I do feel like some slight deepening of production work on this release gives the tunes some bounce and swing that was lacking in the previous two. Especially with regard to the leads, I think it’s hit a rarified, Kraftwerk like plateau, and as a longtime Covenant fan, I welcome that addition.
We’ve gotten a couple of solid entries in the Covenant club track book, including one (“Thy Kingdom Come”) which is an entirely new type of club joint (no small feat for dogs this long in the tooth), and a few deeper cuts which should age well enough. The landscape of Our Thing has changed immeasurably since Covenant utterly conquered it a decade and a half back, and without either bending backwards to suit new trends or doggedly sticking their heels in, they’ve found a way to mature gracefully. That’s worth a toast.
Leaving Babylon is out now on Dependent in Europe and Metropolis in North America. Order it here.