Viva Draconia, the latest album from Tomten, begins with the homey whirr of (I think) an accordion, wheezing out a melody amidst the effortful, semi-audible strikes of human fingers on keys and buttons as chords change.
That sound’s not just an evocative 20-some seconds of bittersweetness. It’s a reminder of the handmade quality that lay beneath everything the Seattle baroque-pop trio touches. Like the band’s previous three full-lengths, Viva Draconia is a masterful little jewel of a record built on a framework of catchy, sophisticated classicist pop songwriting. But some subtle, engaging tweaks have surfaced, and we’re all the richer for it.
Not that anything was broken in the entrancing sonic world crafted by singer/keyboardist/principal songwriter Brian Noyes-Watkins, drummer Jake Brady and guitarist Dillon Sturdevant. “Balance of Terror,” the opening track bookended by that lovely accordion melody, is textbook Tomten in the best possible way. A loping Beatles-tinged number with deliberate piano and Sturdevant’s liquid electric guitar strums, it’s elegantly pulled along by Brady’s restrained drumming. Then, amidst all that aural beauty, Noyes-Watkins’ high, Brit-influenced croon delivers the emotionally-raw lyrics with disarming vulnerability and ambiguity. A line like, “Are you asking of me to cheat myself?/You’ve been stoking the fire with a bald-faced lie” could just as easily be directed at Donald Trump as a gaslighting lover or friend.
But a new ghost–an electronic one– surfaces in Viva Draconia’s pop machinery. Glistening filigrees of eighties-sounding keyboards briefly gild that opening track, but they reach their apex on song number two (and Viva Draconia’s first single), “Blue Movie.” The song’s buoyed not by stately piano or regal harpsichord, but by cushions of synthesizers. Brady also trades in his real drums for the metronomic kick of a drum machine. Miraculously, the result—sort of like OMD gone lushly baroque—totally clicks, largely because it’s built around a gleaming little hook that’d be infectious no matter what instrument it’s played on. Noyes-Watkins’ sharp lyrics remain a verbal Rorschach Test, cheeky yet strangely poignant. The song’s about pornography, but its obliqueness invites metaphors for all manner of addiction: “What turned you on before, now leaves you wanting more/you want more.”
The new-ish prominence of synths threads throughout a good 50% of Viva Draconia, and Tomten integrates the electronics famously. A dreamy (and yes, catchy as hell) keyboard hook bolsters the graceful guitar-based chime of “New Leaf,” giving it the feel of some great lost 1980’s-vintage neo-psychedelic single. “Passing Show” opens with a wall of glacial sci-fi Roland synths, only to give way to one of the record’s most finely-crafted tracks. “Aster,” Viva Draconia’s achingly beautiful closer, wanders into a brief bit of synth melody amidst some wonderfully textural guitar work by Sturdevant that wouldn’t have been out of place on a record by The Church or R.E.M. Don’t let the comparisons to other acts put you off, though. As with all of Tomten’s albums,Viva Draconia’s influences serve as jumping-off points for the band to reshape chamber pop, lilting psychedelia, and now new wave in their own image.
There’s no such thing as a tossed-off moment on a Tomten record: Simply put, they’re such craftsmen that it’s just not in their DNA to half-ass anything. But with its surplus of synth-pop moments and a lean run time of just over 30 minutes, Viva Draconia is easily the most sonically playful record Tomten’s ever put out (Brady even rocks a few beats on a cowbell amidst the shimmery guitar pop of “Gogmagog”). Even pop geniuses need to have fun sometimes.
Tomten plays two shows with Bryan John Appleby in the next two days: One, tonight at The Tractor Tavern (tickets available here), and one at Tacoma’s Alma Mater (tickets here). Viva Draconia officially drops, in physical and digital formats, September 28.