French-Canadian prog-poppers Malajube scored a minor breakthrough outside their homeland with 2006 effort Trompe-l’œil, generating favourable comparisons with the likes of Arcade Fire in the process. That record had a vibrant, technicolour energy to its often breakneck pace, but also demonstrated the band’s way with a delicate, lush melody on songs like ‘Étienne d’août’. 2009 follow-up effort Labyrinthes saw the band add a huge injection of complexity to the tunes, which despite maintaining the intensity of its predecessor, occasionally missed the mark.
Now the band return with La Caverne, and much of the cult following the band built up appear to have dried up. Many fans over here will be put off by the French vocals, but it is their loss. Malajube are intelligent songwriters, and their signature breathy harmonies and sparky arrangements remain intact. Opener ‘Synesthésie’ almost cops the vocal melody from ‘Band On The Run’, but relies instead on myriad synth melodies to augment its simple foundations.
The surprise with this record is the band have toned down the rock factor in their sound and gone straight for a vocal-centric focus – much of the music here relies on simplicity rather than showiness, and everything centres around Julien Mineau’s often fragile voice. ‘Le Stridor’ is a very unfussy, gentle tune until halfway through it suddenly goes a bit ghost train with heavy reverb and discordant melody. There are a lot of influences thrown into the pot here too – ‘Le Blizzard’ lobs some funk guitars and bass squelch in, the synths on ‘Cro-Magnon’ subvert the classic rock riff at its heart and ‘Radiologie’ recalls Mew if they had a pop overdose.
But for all that, this feels like the least successful of their recent albums. The hooks don’t stick as solidly, the changes in style feel more forced and they seem to have lost something of their edge – and crucially (with the exception of the aforementioned ‘Le Stridor’), their ability to spin a great tune off on a tangent. A little below the expectations their following would have hoped for.