Johnny Setlist has demons to fight. Throughout his debut album, Patriarchic Reprobate, he riddles vast musical expanses with numerous lyrics seeped in suggestion, trepidation and underlying violent proclivities. In essence then it would appear that he’s not moved on much from last years The Move EP. But Johnny Setlist has obviously seen where the problems lay in his last EP and has made great motions to improve the already curious and intriguing palette he holds.
Perhaps the most saving action he has made here is to make his music more identifiable and thus more like “music” rather than abstract layers of hiss and radio chatter. But don’t let that fool you into thinking there’s something conventional here. Setlist rarely sticks with one sound for a prolonged length of time and shifts from style to style, sometimes at the blink of an eye. The best example of this is superb opener “The Butcher” which begins with spoken word over lulling strings, ditzy piano, and occasional hums before breaking into blasts of organs and thunderous drumming. And then he shifts further into near dance-like beats. And then acoustic guitar with some odd percussive elements. And then a low hum of organ with crackling harpsichord. All that and it doesn’t even reach the six minute mark. Nor does it ever feel like it’s congested. Even though the shifts can be sudden, they all come to sound natural and flowing after a couple of listens.
Second track, “Epilepsy, Not Idiocy”, follows suite with a steady mix of piano ranging from the frantic opening to a slow and affecting middle section. Quietly epic centrepiece “Ivar” sees this idea spread out, exploring sections more, allowing the listener time to settle comfortably (or perhaps uncomfortably) with a sound before moving it into something else. Admittedly there is something frustrating, almost devious in constructing music in such a manner but not only does it keep the listener engaged, it offers them more – not just in terms of variety, but also in terms of reward for their persistence with the music.
So where are all the demons in this? They probably do exist to some extent in the music, from the brooding tones to the nauseating violin to the general range on offer here, acting as a representation of the numerous hardships we are faced with in life rather than just one solid beast. But more obviously they are in the mostly ambiguous and dense lyrics. “The Butcher” presents a compelling character, but only when you take time to listen to the lyrics: A man of the past Setlist obviously has trouble forgetting, whose mystery seems to lie in the simple fact he’s dead and therefore can’t understand what his actions meant. A little research shows that “Ivar” seems to be an investigative tale of former tycoon Ivar Kreuger. Building vast empires in the financial world – most notably through matchsticks – he eventually found himself lavishing in a world of fortune and then descending into madness before his suicide in 1932. Setlist portrays him in an odd light: the way he begins describing Kreuger, you could mistake for describing himself (“Colourless and unassuming/ Tastefully faceless”).
This content here can come across as sounding thick and even pretentious but he balances it out well with more accessible instrumentals tracks. “Letteropener” wanders around the piano keys creating something beautiful and almost spontaneous sounding without ever being severely complex while “Radical Narcissism” is a neat little piano moment that hard not to like, if not find rather jaunty. “Elder’s Descry Part 1” is an interesting moment: beginning and centring around a catchy piano melody, it seeps wonderfully through transformations while peppering itself with little background noises that add an extra layer of curiosity.
Patriarchic Reprobate is a mightily ambitious record to for an artist to begin with but for many it will come off as obtuse, experimental and even arrogant at times. It still inherits a lo-fi hiss throughout most of its tracks which once more will lead people to dismiss this as something created in another bedroom. But assumptions and dismissals like this are themselves arrogant and somewhat lazy. Though by no means eternally sublime, Patriarchic Reprobate acts as an example to what many will pass by and forget because they overlook one clichéd but golden rule with music, that being it needs time. Johnny Setlist seems to be addressing issues that sound like they have been haunting him for years, so really what harm is it for you to spare him some of your time?