October 9, 2019
Earlier this year, Charlotte rock outfit Ancient Cities released their kick off to summer, “Heavy Sleeper,” a single that explored a new sound and possibly heralded a new era for the group. It featured a foray into an even more rock-influenced sound, aligning them with bands like The Black Keys and Cage the Elephant more so than previous Americana comparisons of their past, if only for that single.
As it appears, the band has decided to follow that lead well into their upcoming record, Spirits of Light. In just nine songs, Ancient Cities proves a dedication not only to their origins, but to this new step into the electro-rock haze of the modern era.
As far as Ancient Cities’ roots go, they generally lead back to a “fun” sound, rife with major scales and a big crescendo to a finale. Whether it’s background noise or the soundtrack to your morning routines, theirs has always been music that you can get into in some fashion or another. They have that je ne sais quoi that wraps people up and sucks them in, a quality that they’ve offered a sincere commitment to on Spirits of Light. The new record speaks to familiar influences like Cold War Kids, The Raconteurs, and My Morning Jacket– varied groups as they may be, yet all share a core sound that tugs on the ears of the masses. It’s a good time.
However, going off of the first track on the album, you wouldn’t limit it to only that. “Dream Ritual” is a curve ball for these guys; it’s a cinematic, charming, almost theatrical build that opens the floor to a whole new style for Ancient Cities. It’s safe to believe that longtime listeners were on pins and needles for the majority of the nearly two-minute intro, waiting for a momentous burst into electronic cacophony, or even a quieted bridge to the rest of the album – some departure from earlier material, some territory unexplored. Yet, the return to the tried and true proved too enticing, and the excitement of the ethereal opening is dashed as the album continues into the slow roll of “Heavy Sleeper,” like waking to soft morning light from deep sleep. It’s a shift almost like a live set– a big intro to walk on stage, then a quick cut straight into the thick of it– back to business, so to speak.
There are few moments on Spirits of Light that evoke the same feelings of wonder as “Dream Ritual,” but that only speaks to the fact that Ancient Cities have stuck with what they know: a sultry, dreamy brand of rock they’ve made into their own. The interplay between slick guitar riffs and fevering electronic spikes plays out like a concerted effort and a love letter to seminal records like Arctic Monkeys’ AM or Boston’s self-titled album. Songs like “Staircase” succeed further in pulling off the dreamy psych-rock more than others such as “Weekend Love.” Both boast long-form guitar solos with an electronic sizzle, letting the vocals fall to the back burner, almost to a fault, as they flirt with the slippery slope of jam rock myopia.
The real gem of this record lies in its production, which recalls a similar quality to colossal groups with far more resources at their disposal. This is brought to the forefront by Ancient Cities’ keyboardist and producer Justin Faircloth, as well as Athens, GA-based producer Drew Vandenberg who was brought in on the backend to do final mixing. Vandenberg is known for his work with groups like of Montreal and Toro y Moi, so it comes as no surprise that Spirits of Light sounds as clear as it does– a clarity that separates Ancient Cities from the fuzzy analog warmth that defined the albums of earlier psych-rock groups.
All things considered, Spirits of Light serves most strikingly as Ancient Cities’ follow-through on the promise for a new, bolstered sound that “Heavy Sleeper” offered back in May. In that regard, Ancient Cities has swung through.
The group has shown a great deal of craftiness with this record and perhaps future material will reveal a greater investment in experimentation similar to the texturing and sonic ambiguity of this album’s opener. But for now, Spirits of Light is sure to perk up listeners as we come into a season of cooler heads and more pensive soundscapes.