It is always a large order to mix equal parts technicality and passion in an album, while still keeping it fun for the listener. How does one make cold and calculating precision appear emotional in any way, while still allowing feet to tap and heads to bob? Inevitably, there ends up being a sacrifice of some sort in the creative process. A Lot Like Birds have melded a winning formula with Conversation Piece, in that the instrumental complexities match the schizophrenic vocals for the perfect everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mentality. Describing the band as a post hardcore band would be accurate but also unfortunate, as the inclusion of a horns section (“Vanity’s Fair”) and post rock-like build-ups (“Truly Random Code”) lends to the idea that they are a bit more imaginative than most bands of an unfortunately watered down genre. Dual vocalists Kurt Travis (ex-Dance Gavin Dance) and Cory Lockwood are a big reason for the success of the album as they play off of each other like they have been doing so for decades, trading all-out screams for gorgeous melodies whenever the frenetic instrumentation turns ethereal and haunting. It truly allows for more than proficient instrumentation to take any turn that it wants, giving the listener much more variety than the average release that is rooted in genre stereotypes.
Conversation Piece begins quite appropriately with “Orange Time Machines Care”, as a quick inhale of breath leads to a frenzied scream from both vocalists and very active instrumentation. It would be easy to assume that the whole song would follow the aggressive suit that is initiated, but as abruptly as it began, the powerful riffs give way to gentle and angular arpeggios that create a dreamy atmosphere around Travis’ soaring vocals and Lockwood’s spoken word bits. It is certainly indicative of a winning formula; not only are the guitarists and rhythm section incredibly technically gifted, but they also show something that many musicians are lacking: restraint. They have quite a bit of it, allowing vocal melodies to take the forefront when there are breaks in the chaos and contributing beautiful clean guitar tones. It seems that when A Lot Like Birds should be sacrificing technicality for catchiness, they are instead providing both to the listener in large doses. “Think Dirty Out Loud” boasts some of the album’s heaviest passages while still providing the most infectious chorus on Conversation Piece by a long shot, and while the screaming may be abrasive to some listeners, Kurt Travis always seems to swoop in at just the right time to balance it out. Truly, the screaming and aggression that is on display throughout the album is simply smoke and mirrors, as melody and subtlety are used to perfection. “Truly Random Code” begins softly, and slowly builds up to passionate spoken word section which then explodes into a fitting epic climax, proving that ALLB are masterful at controlling the pacing of their seemingly off-kilter brand of post hardcore. The atmosphere present of “The Blowtorch is Applied to the Sugar” drips with unrestrained passion vocally; Lockwood’s ferocious screams balance out Travis’ hypnotizing clean vocals, and the two are given the reins to dominate this song to a successful end. Although this album is anything but a grower, repeated listens place the small details in forefront of why Conversation Piece works so well. The glitchy electronics at the beginning of “A Satire of a Satire of a Satire Is Tiring” and the deep chimes in the beginning of “The Blowtorch…” set the tone of the songs wonderfully without being the obvious choice for instrumentation. It’s in this way that A Lot Like Birds are able to keep the listener guessing about what is coming next, but not in an exasperated way.
Ultimately A Lot Like Birds have given an incredibly strong album to fans of post hardcore, and though it is an incredibly involved listen, it is certainly worth the endeavor. The album seems to be a bit front-loaded with the stronger songs, but the lack of monotony more than makes up for that. The teamwork-like mentality of the band paid off extraordinarily well, and the only few missteps that appear here (“Tantrum…” runs a bit too long, and “What Didn’t Kill Me Just Got Stronger” is somewhat anti-climactic for an album closer) are short-lived and forgivable. Conversation Piece is the most creative and enjoyable post hardcore listen that has surfaced in quite some time, and is as buzz-worthy as its title suggests.