Paralytic Stalks, the eleventh album by Athens, Ga.-based of Montreal, does not suffer from lack of ambition. The length — just under an hour for nine songs, the first five of which take up only 20 minutes — gives the band’s centrifuge, Kevin Barnes, ample time to stretch his musical legs, and stretch he does. The last track, “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission,” bobs and weaves over 13 minutes, shifting quickly from a distorted, beat-heavy intro to Princely pop with multi-layered falsetto vocals and double tracked bass, what sounds like a mandolin and might even be a mandolin, layers of swirling swooping and stabbing synth, atonal clusters of God-knows-what, building and building until the beat suddenly drops away about five and a half minutes in, leaving you free-floating in a disorienting array of alternately tuneful and atonal textures. Banks of strings, chromatic violin runs, chunks of processed vocals, and who-knows-what-else pan from left to right to center in the mix. The semi-cacophony eventually resolves (nine minutes in) around a single sweet D# drone before melting into a straightforward piano ballad, where Barnes sings about a world in which “there are no nations, no concept of ego,” and absolutely no one is reminded of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
While this might sound overwhelming, and occasionally is, the effect is never cluttered or muddy. On each song — even the shorter ones are densely packed — Barnes carefully arranges his massed soundscapes so that there is ample room at almost every frequency available to the human ear (and probably some that are not, but I don’t have a dog, sorry), and no single sound competes with anything else, giving the listener a sense of separation and space despite the complexity. Whether or not you can process everything, there is something going on pretty much everywhere, always.
As on its predecessor, False Priest, Barnes deftly incorporates improvisation in Paralytic Stalks’ careful arrangements and seats organic instruments alongside software-generated sequences. The whole thing is prog-tastic, sure, Low-era Bowie filtered through Around The World In A Day-era Prince and exactly one hundred thousand other influences, but grounded by Barnes’ keen melodic sense, his noodling upper-octave bass playing, and especially by his plangent voice and (usually) forthright lyrics. Barnes uses his voice as he would any other instrument on Paralytic Stalks, manipulating off-key (okay, “micro-tonal”) harmonies and blocks of overdubbed voices as far as logic, or Logic (the software that enables Paralytic Stalks’ home-studio complexity) allows.
While Barnes certainly trades in confessional singer-songwriter tropes on occasion here (the intro to “Wintered Debts” channels Elliott Smith), it’s the loopier bits — Brazil ‘66 via early Yes on “Malefic Dowry,” the beat-free digressions of “Exorcismic Breeding Knife” — that stay with you after repeated listens, and that prove most rewarding. For all its songwriterly craft, of Montreal’s experiments make Paralytic Stalks one of the more compelling efforts in the band’s long discography.