What first struck me in Astral Swans’ “Strange Prison” was the intimacy in Matthew Swann’s vocals. It sounds like he’s affectionately speaking, directly to you.  There’s no shouting to the rafters… it’s a melodic, gentle and seemingly effortless style of singing that’s as engaging as it is beautiful.

His soft voice is disarming; if you’re not paying attention to what he’s saying you’ll miss the heartbreak. The honesty.  Opening track “Blow Away” has such gut wrenching sadness described it brings tears to my eyes and the album isn’t passed the first two minutes… I’d like to print every word for you.. but that wouldn’t be fair to you or the album.  I’ll select what first caught my ear: “can you read my thoughts/every terrible thing/that I’m capable of”.   It only gets more terrifying, intense, uneasy, haunting and perfect.  Selecting such a lyrically challenging song to open the album was a risk that a less confident artist wouldn’t have attempted.  That’s just one more reason why it works and is so affecting.

An Alberta star-filled production team including Scott Munro (Preoccupations), Dan Mangan, and Paul Chirka (recording engineer for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra), is tasteful and complimentary in every way imaginable.  Dynamics are constantly shifting in stereo channels from left to right, providing a swirl and orbit around Matthew’s voice.

To say this is a diversely symphonic album is an understatement…  strings, theremins, keyboards and vocal harmonies each make exceptional accompaniment at various times.  This is full-on, studio perfected production… I mean … listening to the title track “Strange Prison” is like an all you can eat buffet for your ears. But more flavorful than that.  “What Are You Gonna Do With Yourself” has a chorus that makes you want to close your eyes and quietly sing along to. “Prison Builder” begins with as a simple acoustic guitar shuffle but, ends with a feedback guitar freak-out; blemishes included… awesome.

Thirteen songs make up the album and none are superfluous. I could write a chapter about the beauty of each track but your time would be far better spent buying the record and listening for yourself!

Preview and buy “Strange Prison” on Bandcamp.

 

Steve Murphy

A bit of a Renaissance man, Steve Murphy is a singer-songwriter, author, and journalist based out of London, Ontario. An avid vinyl collector and audiophile, his personal collection of albums is wide ranging and in the thousands, including four released from his band Westminster Park.