It’s difficult to gauge reaction to an album like A Chorus of Storytellers, the latest from post-rock perennials, The Album Leaf. There’s no denying its virtues; it’s impeccably crafted and dependably pretty, but it is also such a slog. By album’s end, all of the qualities that were initially so appealing have turned to weaknesses. The impeccable craftsmanship makes the listener yearn for something, anything remotely resembling spontaneity. The lukewarm prettiness becomes so overbearing that you’ll wish for ear-splitting feedback.
Certainly, most purveyors of post-rock have become predictable in their usage of rise and fall dynamics, so there is something admirable about The Album Leaf’s resistance to conventional climaxes. Still, this is an album that mostly drifts along calmly and bloodlessly, suggesting that the lack of truly heavy moments are due to a lack of energy rather than a desire to subvert standard techniques.
A Chorus of Storytellers opens promisingly enough, leaving aside the mostly disposable intro, “Perro”. “Blank Pages” begins sparingly, marrying tastefully muted electronic drums to conservatively applied electric piano, recalling Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People-era Califone. The initial swathes of violin and guitar are intriguingly spooky, allowing the song to build to a more complete dialogue between the musicians. Follower “There is a Wind” effortlessly carries over the momentum of “Blank Pages,” aided by some gentle harmonized vocals and more insistent percussion. Generally, The Album Leaf keeps the singing to a minimum, which is probably for the best. The lyrics, when they do appear, tend to get bogged down in poetic abstractions about broad misfortune. Nonetheless, “There is a Wind” is one of the rare moments on A Chorus of Storytellers when that sort of ponderousness works to the album’s benefit.
The Album Leaf manages to pack in one more highlight before the album drifts off into a haze of chiming guitars and swooning strings. “Falling From the Sun”, aside from being one of the few tracks on this album with an identifiable chorus, soars on the strength of said chorus’ beautifully melancholic melody. From there, The Album Leaf disappointedly sticks with what’s worked for producer Birgir Jon Birgisson (Sigur Rós) in the past. Sure, the electronic drums are a point of distinction between The Album Leaf and Sigur Rós, but the back half of A Chorus of Storytellers could double as a Sigur Rós album if not for that distinction.
What’s more, The Album Leaf frequently feel as though they are on the precipice of something bigger here, yet they just can’t muster the gumption to allow themselves a big moment. “We Are” begins with some powerful, distorted drums, suggesting that something titanic is coming. Yet the middling song that follows is anything but. Lord knows The Album Leaf have done good work in the past, and the fact that A Chorus of Storytellers is the band on auto-pilot says a lot about the quality of the band in general. Here’s hoping LaValle & Co. find proper inspiration to match their technical proficiency next time out.