Ballast And Bromides

Arms Of Kismet

Wampus Multimedia, 2018

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


In November 2016 much of my social media circle was in a state of mourning over the results of the U.S. presidential election. As we gathered around the virtual campfire to commiserate, a single voice suddenly burst through our mounting sense of dread, declaring “Yeah—but the art is going to be great!”  

The voice was Mark Doyon’s. And now, as if to prove out his own tongue-in-cheek prognostication, here’s the sparkling, unmerciful new album from singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist-producer Doyon’s musical alter ego Arms Of Kismet.

The aptly-titled Ballast And Bromides is both a look back at what brought us here—the many varieties of ballast from the past that influences people’s behavior in the present—and a visceral commentary on the state of the nation circa 2018. It’s an album that’s distinctively of its time and yet, despite its modernist sonic trappings, also feels rather timeless, an alternately winking and provoking commentary on the madness we must rise and face every day.

While not a concept album in the strictest sense of the word—more like a collection of individual vignettes that seem to all occupy the same world—Ballast nonetheless features themes that play out across its entire breadth. “One eye looks behind / and one eye stares ahead / and as we wait our turn / we turn white, blue, and red,” sings Doyon in scene-setting opener “Bathysphere.” It’s an apt metaphor, taking the point of view of an isolated individual staring out a porthole at the unfamiliar and uninviting environment around them, one that feels weighted down by old sins: “And since we’ve all been gassed / by the demons of the past / we’re all in tears / gasping for air / in this Bathysphere.” Any lingering doubts about what Doyon is getting at are settled by “Specious Claims,” a pithy summation of the torrent of lies that now rages forth daily from our seat of government.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Doyon’s musical aesthetic could be termed postmodern bedroom. With a handful of exceptions, he generates every noise heard on these tracks himself, layering burbling, chirping, at times carnivalesque synths over drum machines, bringing guitars in here and there for some analog warmth, the songs’ elements often repeating like an endlessly looping sonic dreamscape.

“The Corner” and “Soul In A Sling” offer more cutting commentary set to thrumming melodies. The former rather ’80s-flavored number piles up the contradictions to suggest the future is beyond our ability to guess at, let alone predict. The latter is quite a concoction, two-plus minutes of languid yet lacerating commentary on social media celebrity culture that morphs into a very cool, airy, Eastern-influenced guitar solo / outro.

“Zanzibar” rides guest Eamon Loftus’ nimble, chiming guitar figures, a tune about dreaming of journeys that never quite happen, full of a wistful longing even when the bridge/solo section turns playful. It’s no surprise to learn this is the album’s first single, considering the airy, lilting melody has been lodged in my frontal cortex all week. “Be There” then features Loftus and Scott Goodrick (drums, bass, keys)—both former Doyon bandmates in Wampeters—building off a circular Hammond organ melody that allows Doyon to more or less poetry-slam the lyric on top, a tune about mass media first numbing and then awakening a reader who seems to be searching for a reason to care.

“True North” and “Found” make for an interesting pair. In the first instance, spooky swirls and skittering percussion underscore the scene as our narrator prepares to flee north into Canada. But a moment later he seems to rediscover his courage and turn around, as “Found” rides a fist-pumping rhythm and sunny guitar line (from Loftus again) while Doyon belts out the redemptive lyric like a circus ringmaster. “You’ve got to believe,” he sings as the song fades, a declaration that feels like both a reminder and a command to self.

The title of slumbery, thrumming “The Week That Was” again alludes to mass media, though the lyric seems to describe the final moments of a damaged relationship. Closer “Ballast Of Our Youth” is suitably elegiac, looking back and considering how we can be weighed down by the questions we couldn’t resolve. Also, it features big guitars; I like big guitars.

While spinning out this ten-song, 37-minute map of the new landscape of media-saturated isolation and alienation that we find ourselves in today, Doyon does what he always does: he forces you to think. What did he really mean by that line? Is he being literal or metaphorical? Ironic or direct? These songs often don’t leave you with easy answers. Even with a close read, his words and ideas require a certain amount of interpretation through your own lens—a description that fits just about every memorable piece of art I’ve ever encountered.

Ballast And Bromides delivers equal measures of snark and sweetness, nostalgia for a less abrasive time and blunt assessment of the one we’re living through. For all its dire moments, it’s an album that ultimately urges that we still believe, as rough as things might be at the moment, that we can and will do better again one day. I can get on board with that.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2018 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Wampus Multimedia, and is used for informational purposes only.