From the first notes of "Montuno," the eight-minute opus that begins Animator, the third full-length from Montreal's orchestral dreamweavers the Luyas, there's an unsettled feeling that saturates the album. The song fades in just a little too slowly, with reverberated drum machine clicks and cold classroom film-strip synth sounds peeking around the corner before taking a disjointed turn for hovering strings and chaotic woodwinds, and then beginning afresh with the re-introduction of spooky rhythms and Jessie Stein's detached vocals. The sound is softly menacing, somewhere between Broadcast's frigid pop and Robert Wyatt's dreamscape arrangements, with melodies so pleasant and reaching it's easy to overlook Stein's desperate or even morbid lyrics like "I was gonna die, be fed to the horses." This uneasy beginning opens the gates for ten songs' worth of nebulous emotional territory. Work on this wintry album began the same day the band received news that a close friend had died, and the sense of being conflicted between carrying on and mourning informs many of the musical choices here. Songs seem unfinished, sounds come in randomly but not jarringly. It's the Luyas' knack for the unexpected that keeps the tense atmosphere on Animator so sharp. Gorgeously catchy "Fifty Fifty" starts out with Kate Bush-style melodic turns and understated vocals only to be abruptly dropped into a vat of nebulous ambient sound at the song's close. Likewise, the dour lurch of "The Quiet Way" seems fragmentary, dipping out of its group vocal chorus into warbling electronic sounds. Unlike the tired indie theatrics of contemporaries like Sufjan Stevens or fellow Montrealers Arcade Fire, the Luyas rely on subtlety and surprise to build their moody sounds. The unrelenting bass pulse and quaking horn sections of "Your Name's Mostly Water" create an eerie, bubbling-over pop caught between the intimacy of Arthur Russell and the otherworldliness of Talk Talk. It's a darkly beautiful and cautiously considered monolith of an album. Feelings of grief or loss are never quite landed on, nothing is neatly summed up for the listener, and no resolutions are offered for either the compositional or lyrical moments that leave us hanging. The haunted album closer "Channeling" comes closest, shocking the picture back into focus with a childlike singsong melody and ghostly piano. As Animator fades out, however, all that's left is a lingering feeling equal parts hushed and disquieting. The Luyas' ability to cultivate a mood so thick with this album is a huge accomplishment, and the strangely beautiful world they've created in these songs is one worth revisiting over and over.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas