Album Review: STRFKR – Parallel Realms

[Polyvinyl; 2024]

For all their shortcomings, it’s hard to say that STRFKR have ever given anything less than 110% in terms of quantity. While for the most part the Portland band have stuck with their indietronica / electro-pop style throughout their 15+ year existence, they have swivelled the presentation throughout this time, meaning there are albums for all kinds of STRFKR fans. Their (then) self-titled debut album Starfucker has a ropey makeshift charm with some hits that still stand strong today; 2016’s Being No One, Going Nowhere has a gloomier take on their usual style; Future Past Life from 2020 has acoustic-led beige outings aplenty; and Ambient 1 is there for the folks who like their wordless and calming synth offerings.

2013’s Miracle Mile was perhaps something of an accumulation of this all, offering something for everyone but also far too much at the same time. It had a couple of decent moments, but mostly served as solid evidence that STRFKR work best in well-measured (and much shorter) doses. For the band’s new album, Parallel Realms, they’re at it again. Digging through crates of older material, the record settles on the “more is more” technique of album construction, not letting any moment get left behind and once again offering something for all their fans. With 17 tracks and at 55 minutes long, Parallel Realms is unsurprisingly a slog, but its saving grace is that it’s perhaps not as bad a slog as its 2013 sibling. 

There are at least a few genuine highlights to be found amid it all. “Under Water / In Air” bristles with a communal energy and an ease the band rarely captures on record, all before a sprightly guitar riff appears like a blossoming flower decorating an already pretty garden. With its reverberating early CFCF-like synths, sprinkle of tabla percussion, and French-sung lyrics, “Chizzlers” stands out for offering new textures and marrying them to the band’s melancholic vibe. STRFKR have always been a band that are at their best when they marry downbeat downer lo-fi indie pop elements together with an ease that feels second nature. Contrasting the hopelessness in the lyrics (“I don’t know what’s happened here with my life”, “Maybe we should give it up”), opening tracks “Always / Never” and “Holding On” have this sparkle about them, but equally do feel like par for the course for the band.

And there are a handful of tracks that fit into that category of being perfectly fine and enjoyable STRFKR tracks, but don’t rock the boat or struggle to get you excited about STRFKR in 2024. “Lot Of Nice Things” pulses with a shadowy 80s synth groove, but equally sounds worn out while “Armatron” takes a left turn into spacey territory during its second half, drifting about in a downcast cosmos without much purpose. “Together Forever” boasts a sunny disposition, energetic drumming, and a glitzy synth solo that sounds like a discount Doctor Who theme, but the whole thing is performed like the band is absolutely sick of the track (listen out for perhaps the most uninspired and bored guitar solo of the year). For the first time the band handed over mixing duties for the album entirely, and while Chris Coady arguably makes Parallel Realms sound like the most crisp STRFKR album to date, there is an element of flashy sounds just dressing up older tracks that would have been better saved for demo collections.

Perhaps the most frustrating feature of the album is the most obvious: its length. The tracklist is peppered with small, inoffensive instrumentals that mostly sound like music made for “lo-fi in space chill beats vibes” playlists, elevator music for a space station, or generally just aching for an Alan Watts clip to be thrown in. Added to this, multiple songs feature unnecessary extended outros, and coupled with the instrumentals, any momentum the album builds is quickly lost. There are certainly lesser tracks here that could have been cut without anyone missing them too much (the chuggy “Carnival” with it’s nonsensical lyrics, the nasal and neon “Feelings”, the textured but forgettable “Something To Prove”), but they feel particularly without a chance here, lost in a sea of MGMT/Passion Pit-esque tracks dosed with a worrying amount of Ambien. 

Maybe this is all part of a final flourish. The album’s lyrical focus could be interpreted to point towards frontman Josh Hodges wrestling with whether he wants to keep this whole thing going. Seven minute closing track “Leaving” has him lamenting “What does it matter? / When it’s always just more of the same” and by that point in the album it’s hard for the listener to not feel the same. Perhaps it’s about relationship woes as opposed to creation process anxiety, but the latter would kind of excuse the excess the band work with here. The length of “Leaving” isn’t required, but it fits with the album’s recurrent habit of riding the vibe out until the very and absolute end, often to the point of dulling the potential joy the music has. STRFKR once again give a little bit of everything, but they also fail to recognise that we already have too much of their thing. The buffet is full as it is, but STRFKR are still bringing full plates to the table.