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Vinyl Williams - Opal Music Album Reviews

Lionel Williams’ fourth album brings new melodic clarity to his kaleidoscopic variations on soft-focus psych pop, pushing his songs into the realm of pure, escapist pleasure.

Trends are hard to suss out amid the diversity of contemporary indie rock, but it sure feels like there’s a lot of good psychedelic music out there lately. From MGMT’s doomy, atomic pop and the motorik fantasias of Hookworms to the variegated loveliness of Beach House’s 7 and the knotty micro-prog of Melody’s Echo Chamber, 2018 has offered an embarrassment of trippy riches. A fair amount of this music has come from Toro Y Moi mastermind Chaz Bundick’s Carpark imprint Company Records, including mind-bending releases from San Francisco guitar stylist Tanukichan and the post-rock dream maker who records as Astronauts, etc., among others.

The latest noteworthy psych album to emerge from this milieu is former Company signee Vinyl Williams’ Opal. The fourth record from the hazy LA pop project masterminded by Lionel Williams (grandson to legendary film composer John Williams) represents a massive leap forward from what came before it. Since his full-length debut, 2012’s Leminiscate, Williams has followed his messy muse wherever it’s taken him, situating patches of streamlined songwriting next to side-long instrumental indulgences adorned with titles like “Mercurial Vestiges.” Although Opal’s tracklist still betrays a predilection for extravagant language (a personal fave: “Florian Veridiciton”), there’s a new clarity to his work here; songs spin through kaleidoscopic variations on soft-focus pop without losing their melodic grounding, even at their weirdest moments.

The album bears some resemblance to Tame Impala’s 2010 debut, Innerspeaker, and to Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s warped rock. But it has a more obscure forerunner in the music of the now-defunct Colorado hippie collagists Candy Claws, whose first full-length, 2010’s Hidden Lands, is all heavenly, hushed whispers and mossy keyboard reveries. Opal has a similarly dreamy aura, with spun-sugar melodic passages anchored by Williams’ gossamer vocals and a thumping low end—but it adds an intense rhythmic pulse, in percussion flourishes that range from the high-speed cymbal rush of “Sanctuary Spells” to the tricky fills underlying “None With Other.” There’s never been any doubt that Williams is an adept musician, but his newfound skills as a songwriter and arranger push the album into the realm of pure pleasure.

The lyrics on Opal are—literally—a real trip. “Lessons of LSD/Light could illuminate me,” Williams sings on the driving closer “Millennial Ballroom,” hammering home that this is music made for (and likely by) black-light enthusiasts prone to binge-watching Alejandro Jodorowsky films. There’s talk of fictional planets and the astral plane, floating houses, aliens, and other cosmic ephemera. The heavy processing around Williams' vocals makes most of these brain-melting musings unintelligible, but you can hear him loud and clear in the jaunty chorus of “Noumena”: “All of everything outside of our head/Opens the doors where we can fall right in.”

For all of its paeans to psychedelics, however, the hermetic and colorful world of Opal also illustrates that “head music” needn’t always be associated with substances. The best psych pop often functions as a guided meditation for its listeners—a way to escape, for a little while, from the horrors of the world or the drudgery of everyday life. (As Tame Impala’s “Music to Walk Home By” suggests, this stuff thrives on solitude.) With Opal, Williams offers an entryway into his own private sanctuary. Once overstuffed with ideas, the place has become an inviting, well-lit haven for daydreamers who could use a vacation from reality.

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