It can be tempting, especially with bands that I’ve covered for years, to be more optimistic in my review than I actually feel in my mind. When I feel that temptation, I’ve learned to double down on my real opinion. I think I must do that right now with the new Major Parkinson album. I wouldn’t call it a disappointment, but I would be the first to admit that it is probably my least favorite from them. The new album is called Valesa – Chapter 1: Velvet Prison and it released on October 7th.
I’ve been a fan of Major Parkinson for a long time. I reviewed their eerie Twilight Cinema back in 2014 for another site, and I even gladly accepted the opportunity to premiere the title track of their Blackbox album back in 2017. To this day, that album is a favorite of mine, and even my kids know some of the tracks very well. It’s been a few years since then, however, and through various live releases I had started wondering if the band would return with a new studio album. Valesa is that long-awaited return, and while it contains much of what I like about the band, I can’t help but feel like it is a mixed bag.
The band hails from Norway. They are quite a collective with all sorts of quirks and idiosyncrasies that I really like. The band currently consists of Jon Ivar Kollbotn on lead vocals, synths, piano, and Windom Earle flute; Sondre Skollevoll on guitars and backing vocals; Øystein Bech-Eriksen on guitars, Bucuresti glass harp, and whoaphone; Lars Christian Bjørknes on synths, piano, backing vocals, and co-lead vocals; Peri Winkle on violins and co-lead vocals; Eivind Gammersvik on bass, synths, percussion, guitars, organ, and blackboard yubi; and Sondre Veland on drums. Yes, there are seven members and loads of strange instruments, and there are a dozen more guests that appear on this album, as well.
Major Parkinson plays what might be considered a weird form of music. Their progressive rock sound is often dark and macabre, but also colorful and zany. Jon has a voice that you either love or hate, being rather gruff and he does plenty of talking vocals. I personally love his voice. The band chimes in on vocals pretty often, too, especially Peri; and so their sound feels like a group effort constantly. They create very interesting melodies and out of the box genre fusions that make them unlike any other band that I can name. Sometimes I refer to them as the European Bent Knee, but that is about as close of a comparison as I can muster.
I’ll make this easy. First, I’ll name the things I like about this album, and then I’ll list the things I don’t like. First, Valesa is a change in direction. The band has leaned into a synth/dream pop sound here with lots of 80s sounds and neon, and I love that. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. The band has included all sorts of interesting, burning synth tones, and the piano is lush and gorgeous. It’s a real treat for the senses in that way. I also love that the band’s signature lyrical style remains; they are known for some of the most descriptive, unconventional word combinations in music, and that part of their personality is completely intact. Finally, I love Jon’s performance on vocals here. I think this might be his best singing to date, and most of his segments are incredibly smooth and earthy.
What didn’t I like? For one, the album has 17 tracks with some of them being interludes and some being actual songs. I don’t have a problem with that, per se, but I feel like this format often leads to weaker songs overall. Had some of these songs been combined, the ideas could have flowed more naturally and made for some excellent transitions. As it is, we mostly get a single idea in each song, and they haven’t been developed much. There is a clear lack of consistency in quality when it comes to the melodies, especially the interesting ones. It can feel quite sparse, too, because most of the songs are 2-4 minutes, and so many of them never evolve or progress when so much potential exists for each of them.
I’m also not a fan of Peri’s voice on this album. She has a great voice, yes, but they have filtered it to absolute death here. She sounds like the movie version of Harley Quinn, which I can’t stand. So, basically any time she is singing (with some exceptions), it feels cringey and lollipop-laden. That’s not really my thing. I really liked her contributions to Blackbox, but feel like their changes to her voice ruin what she offers here.
I have to mention one other negative. This album includes the previously released track “Jonah”, which was one of my favorite songs of 2020. I love it. My kids love it. It’s one of those songs that is always a joyful experience. Well, the band includes it here, but it’s a completely different arrangement. Aside from a beautiful piano melody that emerges near the end, I feel like this version ruins most of my favorite moments. I can appreciate wanting to release a new version, and I can even appreciate this as an alternate version, but the original is worlds better. And, I daresay that the original is exactly the punchy vibrancy that this album needed at the halfway point. The version here sort of helps the album lose steam, in my opinion. I honestly might make my own playlist and swap out the versions.
I feel like I’m just airing my petty grievances, and maybe I am. I’m still giving this album a 7, after all, because of how strong much of the album is. It’s strange, though, because strong moments can run right up against poor ones. An example is the song “The House” with a fiery groove and excellent synth work, but a terrible vocal interlude with an autotuned Peri that destroys it.
I’ll just talk about my favorite tracks, then. I love, love, love the song “Behind the Next Door”; it has some of the best vocal melodies, synth twists, and darkly curious moments of the album. The final minutes of the song are glorious and amazing. I like “Saturday Night” for its sunny synth tone and what is also Peri’s best vocals on the album. I love some of the interludes, such as “Ride the Whirlwind”, “Intermezzo”, and “Lemon Symphony”, which are all instrumental, passionate, fun performances.
I really like “Irina Margareta”. It feels like a song that could have been on Blackbox with its squirrely keys and wonderfully building atmosphere. Despite the bad filters on Peri’s voice, I also love “Fantasia Me Now!”, especially the last half with its dark groove and group singing. “Heroes” is a pretty decent closer, too, being shadowy and almost claustrophobic. There are plenty of cool moments strewn throughout the tracks that I didn’t mention, but they don’t last long.
Overall, I feel disconnected from Valesa. Many of the songs aren’t worth mentioning because they are one-trick ponies that pass quickly. It’s easy to start wondering when the meat of the album will arrive. I haven’t felt that way about anything this band has created in the past, so it’s a weird feeling. I feel like they tinkered so much with the style of the production that they forgot to develop their ideas and make good songs. I guarantee this album will grow on me somewhat, but it might be the first one from them that I start skipping tracks on, also.
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