Album Review: LA Priest – GENE

[Domino; 2020]

No one is more tired of hearing this tale than Sam Eastgate, but damn, Fantasy Black Channel was one hell of a record. Eastgate’s now defunct Late of the Pier took elements from dance punk and concocted an ecstatic mixture of his mind’s inner-workings. After its release in 2008, we couldn’t wait to see what the band were going to throw at us next.

Eastgate’s LA Priest project is so far removed from this level of bombast, it’s difficult to remember that it’s the same person. We were all disappointed when that second Late of the Pier album never came, but after his 2015 debut as LA Priest, Inji, all was forgiven.

Eastgate was eager to mature his sound, and we were all willing to wait for it. Sadly, GENE fails to set the hook beyond its general concepts. Save for a couple of stinkers, the songs on the album are fine. There’s patient care to each soundscape; Eastgate even created his own instrument, the titular GENE, to compose the album.

Staying in a consistent groove for the length of “Beginning” is a testament to Eastgate’s growth as a songwriter. It’s an excellent way to open the album, like you’ve stepped outside your house for the first time in the day to realize there’s a Mary Poppins whimsicality to the world. Instead of singing penguins and birds however, there’s a host of razor-tight guitar chords and staccato arpeggios underneath a buoyant vocal line. The stage seems set for an expansion on the unpredictability of Fantasy Black Channel and Inji.

Next is “Rubber Sky” which also never strays from its base elements; there’s a distinct shift in the sound coming from the GENE in the track’s second half, but the pulse on the drums remains stubbornly in place. By the third track, we should be stepping away from these tired ‘boom-clap’ drum forms, and what we get is “What Moves”, which is one of Eastgate’s most fun vocal melodies ever; trace any part of your body to its arrangement and you’ll certainly end up in a pleasant dance. It’s a great song, but it doesn’t sequence well with what comes before.

At this point GENE is gasping for more pep and variety; instead we get “Peace Lily” which is more of a coda to “What Moves” than a complete song. There’s a Bibio-inspired lilt to the guitar which is quite pleasant when taken by itself; taken within context of the record, however, it feels like an afterthought. The following “Open My Eyes” has an enchanting melody and there’s nothing to complain about on its own, but at this point, five tracks in, GENE hasn’t made a single dynamic shift.

“Sudden Thing”, “Monochrome”, and “Black Smoke” also do little to bring lift-off to this project, but each boasts an excellent finale. “Sudden Thing” ends with a moment of relative silence, with legato strums and minimalist drums, which would be soothing if it were on a different album. The other two songs both have a very energetic ending to them, but the decision to place the fabulous drum break at the end of “Black Smoke” instead of the beginning is beyond this writer. It almost feels like Eastgate is purposefully hiding GENE’s more engaging elements deep within its tracks; the blueprints are laid out, but the construction has no flash.

After multiple listens, the frustration begins piling on. Perhaps a new level of collaboration would have given LA Priest the adrenaline shot it needs. Longtime producer and Phantasy Records mainbrain Erol Alkan once again worked with Eastgate on the album, and their chemistry on individual songs is clear, but when challenged with creating an album experience, maturation has given way to lethargy. Even the poetry is flat – trading the immediacy of Eastgate’s ruminations on suicide and sex and replacing them with lyrics that are greyly unspecific. The fact that “Kissing of the Weeds” exists at all is a goof, and the milquetoast lyrics aren’t helping.

Despite the utter boredom of GENE, Eastgate is no stranger to a hook or a pleasant song, but what made Inji and Late of the Pier work so well was his ability to mix those skills with songs that were genuinely fun to hear. Conversely, getting through GENE is a total chore. We end with “Ain’t No Love Affair”, which closes the album experience on two minutes of trippy ambience and arrhythmia. This kind of winding down would be more welcome at the end of an exciting journey, and it ends up being yet another song that might have prospered in a different context.

None of this is evidence that Eastgate is over the hill or talentless. To the contrary, the ability to restrain your songs from blasting off into a massive synth solo is difficult to do when you have an instrument as crafty as the GENE, which has effectively created its own genre. Eastgate’s steadfastness is praiseworthy, but it hardly makes for an engaging album experience. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another five years to hear this sound get the expansion it deserves.