Southampton four-piece Delays never really fit into the whole mid-noughties alternative scene they emerged from, with their engaging blend of blissful harmonies, shoe-gazing lyrics, and jangly guitar pop more suited to the late-'80s era of the La's, James, and the Sundays than the ramshackle indie period that spawned the Libertines, Razorlight, and the Kaiser Chiefs. Their misfortune at being born two decades late might explain why they've since become perennial underachievers, with each of their three releases adhering to the law of diminishing returns, despite producing a string of glorious, underrated pop singles ("Valentine," "Nearer Than Heaven") which deserved far more recognition than their lowly chart positions achieved. After parting company with Fiction, the second record label to dump them following 2006's split with Rough Trade, their fourth studio album, the Lookout Mountain-released Star Tiger Star Ariel is a much more urgent, rock-led affair than its predecessors, despite the presence of Duncan Lewis, the producer responsible for the gorgeous dream pop sound of their debut, Faded Seaside Glamour. Lead singer Greg Gilbert's astonishing falsetto vocals, which at times recall Suede's Brett Anderson and at others, the Cocteau Twins' Liz Fraser, is still as prominent as ever, as on the experimental Middle Eastern-flavored ambient opener, "Find a Home (New Forest Shaker)," and the minimal, piano-based ballad "Hold Fire." But this time around, it's also backed up by a number of songs featuring heavier riffs, more aggressive rhythms, and a new sense of attitude, such as the new wave/post-punk-inspired "Shanghaied" the Brit-pop-esque "May 45," and the chaotic prog rock of the closing title track, all of which showcase a bold new direction, but one which lacks the charm of their usual trademark sun-kissed sound. It's no coincidence that the only time their punchier edge really convinces is on "In Brilliant Sunshine," a driving New Order-esque number featuring lead vocals from Greg's brother Aaron, which suggests that their usual frontman's unique vocal presence is much better suited to honey-glazed indie pop than spiky alt-rock. However, "Lakes Can Be Lethal," "Unsung," and "Moment Gone" are much more like Delays of old, full of swooning melodies, chiming guitars, and cinematic strings. Star Tiger Star Ariel therefore, still offers glimpses of their previous distinctive style, but if they continue to push its more rustic sound to the forefront, they risk sounding like every other generic indie band they once effortlessly differentiated themselves from.
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AllMusic Review by Jon O'Brien