The Deadly Syndrome
here’s wolves in the garden,” Chris Richard belts out, midway through the fourth song of The Ortolan, the debut from the Silverlake quartet, the Deadly Syndrome. Every time I hear the line, it instantly triggers memories of an ‘80s movie that shall forever remain nameless, a fact I attribute to having spent one too many high school evenings taking bong rips and watching the highs and lows of a hoops-playing teenage werewolf who may or may not have loved a girl named Boof.
Most of Ortolan’s detractors will probably hear something else in the lupine line. They’ll bitch and they’ll moan about how the Deadly Syndrome sound just like [insert critically acclaimed Canadian rock band] here. And they’ll point out the obvious: Richard’s knock-kneed falsetto resembles Spencer Krug, Winn Butler, Alec Ounsworth, and the rest of the many seeds that David “The O.D.B. of Indie” Byrne planted in contemporary yelp rock.
But they’re missing the point. The Deadly Syndrome aren’t trying to re-invent the Catherine Wheel, their brand of indie gladly reads from the same Canadiandie playbook as the rest: the now-familiar array of odd instrumentation including a xylophone and the accordion and the facility to frame anthems into a off-kilter ‘90s Sub Pop song structure. But, at the same time, the Deadly Syndrome make it their own, displaying a distinctly folk tilt that suggests that they’ve absorbed their share of Fairport and Fahey, in addition to the more contemporary Moon and Antarctica/In the Aeroplane Over the Sea touchstones.
Most importantly, The Ortolan shows an inherent knack for transmitting the wild-eyed schizophrenia of the band’s notoriously frenetic stage show to the studio, a difficult task for veteran bands, let alone a bunch of former film school kids who came out of virtually nowhere to become one of Silverlake’s biggest bands in merely months. The Ortolan feels looser than most first LP’s, almost jammy at times, with not a single song clocking in at under three minutes and nearly a third crossing the five minute mark.
The record’s superficially benign instrumental patches reveal exactly why Steve Aoki was wise in dangling a record deal in front of them approximately 16 minutes after they formed (proving once again that no one is capable of resisting the fried rice at Benihana). “I Hope I Become a Ghost” rides out on a flying dust cloud of mad monk piano keys and caveman drums. “The Ship that Shot Itself” is buoyed by an ethereal accordion line that breathes and swells, fleshing out the bare-bones folk guitar line. “Emily Paints” starts out like lukewarm Hot Hot Heat but resurrects itself mid-song like a forest full of dead trees struck by lightning, burning in an orange crush-colored haze of guitars.
The Ortolan makes the typical first record mistakes, of course. Instead of ending on its arena-rock high note, “Emily Paints” tacks on a keyboard-heavy coda that works live but feels unnecessary on wax. “Hearts” commences with a few shoegaze guitars that seem thrown in just because. And the lyrics are merely passable, not yet reflecting the good sense of humor that the band has evinced in their YouTube videos promoting the record.
In the end, it often boils down to something one of my Stylus colleagues recently pointed out: if something sounds good, it is good. The Ortolan is a very good record, perhaps the finest from the batch of bands that has broken out of Silverlake in the last few years. It remains to be seen whether the Deadly Syndrome will evolve into a great band, but judging from The Ortolan’s frequent moments of excellence, I’m willing to bet its follow-up will be leagues better than Teen Wolf Too.