There’s no more difficult task in music than aging with grace, yet Islands and former Unicorns frontman Nick Thorburn is still plenty young in the game at 31 and has been inching on and ever onward into musical maturity since 2003’s Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?. The once warbled, hushed, childlike elocution of a 21-year-old Nick Diamonds (Thorburn's stage name)—who co-wrote songs focused around exacerbated synth-blips, whispered timbres and campfire harmonies—has grown to write ambitious, sprawling numbers centered in pop music but driven on by clear influence from rock and roll greats of yore. Islands’ latest, Ski Mask, is the culmination of that growth to date, keeping the freewheeling enthusiasm of Thorburn’s pop past while illuminating the theatrical strife and intensity of his rock-driven future.
Islands have been somewhat of a volatile mixture of shifting components since their inception in 2005, always shifting around members, never really committing to a particular style or lineup for more than an album or two. Alongside lslands, Thorburn has associated with a slew of acts past and present, namely The Unicorns, Th’ Corn Gangg, Mister Heavenly, Human Highway, Reefer, and a solo album under his on-again, off-again stage name Nick Diamonds. Currently working as a four-piece, Islands have seen nine to ten members come and go (depending on how many times you want to count Jamie Thompson—also formerly of The Unicorns—who has come and gone from the Islands lineup on two occasions).
A band of consistent evolution, Islands remain ever adventurous while maintaining a tactfully reserved demure. Thorburn’s spent the last ten years reigning himself in from the spastic tongue-in-cheek pop of his Unicorns past, and even from that of his first two Islands albums. Stylistic favoritism aside, each successive release paints a clearer and clearer picture of what he wants to put forth in terms of emotional resonance, musical integrity and the gradual build of his rock and roll ethos.
Their celebrated ’05 debut, Return to the Sea, turned the inherent tropes of chamber pop on their side, dwelling in pinching synth-tones and boisterous annunciations while waxing jovial on life and likeness. Yet, over time, a gradual leaning toward lingering darkness has grown within Thorburn, and each successive album seemed to veer more towards rock angst, flushing away the almost coy, youthful fanaticism and childlike curiosity that prevails across Return to the Sea and Arm’s Way and replacing it with heavier moods and glam-infused theatrics. Ski Mask continues this trend, yet embraces and pays homage to the band’s inception with pop-adoring strides on tracks like “Nil” and “Hushed Tones”.
With intro track “Wave Forms,” Thorburn calls immediate attention to the ancient history of his Islands debut—“No wave forms out here / adrift amidst an endless sea / and there’s nothing to return to / you’ll find me drifting endlessly”—before launching in to a slow-building meld of tweaked out synth and delicate guitar that erupts into a dedicated chorus, proudly announcing, “the water’s calm / and I am moving on.” From there on out is an album of impressive rock solidarity and an intimate understanding of the lines between the man and his music.
Hefty theatrics come into play throughout Ski Mask, particularly with songs like the organ-fuelled tale of danger and tension in “Death Drive,” the vaudevillian piano-pop romp of “Nil,” the consistently rising and falling intensity of “Sad Middle,” as well as with the discordant meandering of the album’s darker tracks like “Shotgun Vision” and “Of Corpse” (“Death Drive” certainly fits in with the album’s dark side as well). Lead-off single “Becoming the Gunship” is a by-the-books retelling of rock and roll’s past, fit with ebbs and swells of elongated grandeur and casual, soft-spoken builds to a lush, hearty chorus; it’s even laced with a few brief interlude solos and a breathy, harmonious bridge for good measure.
Thorburn’s gradually building penchant for rock theatrics and shipshape maintenance of his pop sensibilities have created one of his most intricate and alluring albums to date. With such a varied musical career as Thorburn/Diamonds, stylistic favoritism will inevitably play a lofty role in the hindsight of his accomplishments, considering the vast differentiation between Islands/The Unicorns/Mister Heavenly and all of his projects. His works criss-cross and mesh throughout various genres and styles, always featuring distinct variations in tone and style, but all held together by the backbone of Thorburn’s execution. All the same, Ski Mask is his most fully realized album to date: an emblem of growth that still maintains the adventurous spirit and bravado of youth.
1. Wave Forms
2. Death Drive
3. Becoming The Gunship
5. Sad Middle
6. Hushed Tones
7. Here Here
8. Shotgun Vision
9. Of Corpse
10. We’ll Do It So You Don’t Have To
11. Winged Beat Drums