The Ark

State of the Ark

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State of the Ark, the Swedish band's third full-length and their first to receive U.S. distribution, is aptly named, as it both summarizes the strengths of their career to date and constitutes a new departure, an innovative technological development for their music and for guitar-based, pop-inclined rock in general. Perhaps the most conspicuous change from their earlier work is the virtual absence of extravagant symphonic and choral bombast, and a corresponding scaling-back of their overt, glam-infused theatricality. In the few instances when an orchestral element is introduced, as with the unison string section on the strutting schaffel opener, "This Piece of Poetry Is Meant to Do Harm," it's understated and playful, rather than melodramatically overblown. There's still plenty of flamboyance to go around -- the guitars gleam and crunch, lead singer Ola Salo swoons and soars in his glorious falsetto (more resplendent than ever, thanks to doubling and choral multi-tracking), and he still has plenty of anthemic rabble-rousing on his lyrical agenda -- check the pansexual rallying cry "The Others" or the free-agent hedonism of "Deliver Us from Free Will," a delirious, dadaist fusion of rock and disco that's not above indulging in some absurdly operatic backup vocals. (Less coherence equals less didacticism.) At its essence, though, State presents the Ark as a lean, mean, spit-polished rock & roll machine, sounding more than ever like an honest-to-goodness band, albeit a band inclining as close as ever toward their proclivity for pop, with a battery of inexorably danceable beats and a fully-stocked arsenal of synthesizers gilding their meticulously tooled melodic machinations. It feels markedly more electronic than previous Ark albums, and to some extent it is, not just because it swaps synths for symphonics but because of how decidedly processed everything sounds, from the vocals on down (not in an obtrusive or cloyingly "overproduced" way; just enough to create an ultra-modern, slightly otherworldly sheen.) But that's partially just an effect of the band's uncannily crisp delivery -- immaculately clean-toned (or fussily fuzzed-up) guitars, deployed with a laser precision -- who can say for sure whether the mutating, stereo-bouncing bit of fuzz that opens "Poetry" originated from a keyboard or a guitar? And ultimately who cares, as long as all that persnickety sonic perfection is exploited for the benefit of pop songs as rapturous and spirited as the glistening "One of Us Is Gonna Die Young," rockers as bone-headedly propulsive as "Clamour for Glamour," and ballads as poignant as the transcendently tender "No End." State of the Ark is a tour de force from start to finish, and one of the most perfectly-crafted pop or rock albums, Swedish or otherwise, to appear in the 2000s.

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