Album Review: Tom Vek – New Symbols

[Self-released; 2020]

“I know we will survive” are the first words the UK electronic experimenter Tom Vek sings on his new album New Symbols, his first in six years. Eleven months into a hellish year, it’s quite the affirmation, and one not beyond the realm of skepticism. Why should listeners take his simple, perhaps naïve, statement seriously? Vek needs to make his case.

Fortunately, for the most part, he does; throughout the album’s eight tracks, Vek rightfully searches for where, and how, to appropriately place this desire for positivity. This is no easy task — “I know it’s hard / to be stuck in place,” he admits halfway through opener “Survive”. Across New Symbols, he sings over a driving, anxious climactic progression of synths and winding guitars that at times puts his vocals second.

Indeed, these songs are loud and dense, at times bursting at the seams. Yet each choice feels impeccable in their contribution to the whole: very little feels out of place. Album highlight “Guilty Pleasure” is a song built on a hollow, rolling percussion with production that bears resemblance to The Soft Bulletin. “I got my head together, it’s no better / This is no more than a guilty pleasure,” Vek sings alongside a bright, euphoric key hook. 

The persistent cymbal and funky bass on “Slippery Fish” give the song a sinister, King Krule-like groove. “You can swim up the river now / you can swim through the dam,” he says with a deadpan delivery. “Have you ever tried to swat a fly?” he asks. The lyrics glide between the concrete and the surreal, exemplifying how Vek is searching for the right metaphor – symbolism – to describe himself in 2020. It’s perhaps the best evidence that New Symbols is Vek’s most focused work.

Vek’s journey faces difficult internalized obstacles. On “Washed Up On The Beach”, whining guitar riffs compliment Vek’s vocals, “Everyone knows that you want to be understood / Opening up some emotion but nothing is echoing back off the cliff,” he sings, pointing out the emotional, and literal isolation felt by so many. Vek goes one step further on “All The Time In The World”, where he challenges what it means to have a sense of purpose in today’s world. Sure, the title reads like a wink to today’s world of lockdowns and quarantines, but Vek doesn’t stop there; “You have nice things / I have nice things you just photographing / I’m not saying, I’m not saying it’s not important but / we could make each other jealous,” he says, reminding listeners that highlight reels, social status, and material desires will be around once our world reopens. Nevertheless, Vek commits to change: “I’m lightening up.”

Depending on your take, Vek’s limited vocal range is either his signature quirk or an occasional distraction. Here, for the first time, he seems to have weighed these perspectives and opted for the side of caution. A serene synth landscape takes up the final third of “My Child”, and on “Rolling You Down”, one of the album’s more spacious tracks, Vek’s words are nestled in swirling synths and a rolling rhythm that lead into a bouncing, arpeggiating melody that accompanies the chorus. It’s a track you could imagine Animal Collective pulling off.

Vek’s albums have felt, at times, uneven. On 2014’s Luck, for instance, he offered up a relatively eclectic mix of songs that ranged from catchy synth-pop (“Sherman (Animals in the Jungle)”) to guitar-focused indie rock. But Vek makes a compelling case on New Symbols: his hopeful words that open that album shouldn’t be taken at face value; rather, they serve as the mental destination he hopes to eventually arrive at. There’s reason to believe he’ll get there.