Creativity can be a funny thing. No matter how hard you might try to bring a sense of creative originality to your work, after awhile it becomes easy to fall into the same patterns you started out with. This isn’t always a bad thing, especially if you’ve got a particularly compelling creation in the first place. But should you get bored and worried that you’re not pushing yourself hard enough or far enough in a certain direction, there’s always drastic steps you can take to force your hand. This is what the duo known as Candy Claws did for their second album, “Hidden Lands”. Upon starting work on the album, they realized that they kept using the same guitar chords and song structures that were on their first record. Looking to diversify, they picked up an instrument they had never played before, the keyboard, and began hunting for moments that “sounded right”. The result is a densely layered and obscure record that’s equal parts fascinating and challenging.
At first glance, the layers of synths and obscure time signatures of “Hidden Lands” could bring up memories of Animal Collective circa 2004-05 in what might delicately be referred to as the “Feels” era. There’s perhaps an even stronger connection to Beach House, given the male-female dynamic of the duo and again, the synths. Yet Candy Claws never quite sound like they’ve got a firm grasp on either of those two bands, instead moving in their own unique direction that’s mainly original because Ryan Hover and Kay Bertholf don’t fully know what they’re doing. Yet it still all makes complete sense, particularly in the context of the full record. There’s actually so much going on sonically with layers upon layers, they’ve had to recruit six more people to perform these new songs live. The whole album just sort of drifts by, like a cloud floating past in the sky, with little distinction or moments that stand out. Yet it still sounds beautiful, though it’s not the most upbeat record, like when said cloud covers up the sunlight just as you’re trying to catch a tan. Two of the things that make “Hidden Lands” what it is are so subtle you might not notice them unless you were listening carefully with headphones on. It’s the faint crackle of a vinyl record and the chirping of birds, both of which give the album a natural warmth that significantly aids the mood and tone of the songs.
Lyrically speaking, the words on “Hidden Lands” are pulled from author Richard Ketchum’s novel “The Secret Life of the Forest”, but they’re not exact representations of what’s written in there. See, the band used a fun little online translator known as “Translation Party”, which translates English to Japanese multiple times in a row to show how the phrasing and meaning changes the more times you translate. So basically the lines from the book the band chose to use as lyrics are the fresh, multi-translated versions of the originals. The thing is, not much of it matters because most of the time you can’t hear or understand the lyrics clearly. They’re buried beneath the layers of synths or run through distortion programs, the main purpose being to add to the overall sound in a song rather than try to add depth or meaning. To put it another way, Candy Claws don’t want to tell you what to think, but instead are just asking you to go with the flow. Bringing it back around to the cloud metaphor, nobody can definitively tell you what a cloud “looks like”, because everybody has their own interpretation of the same thing. You might see a porcupine shape, while somebody else sees a princess crown. Whatever holds more significance to you, that’s the correct viewpoint.
Ultimately, “Hidden Lands” is something of a dream album, in the sense that’s hazy and gorgeous to listen to. The keyboards shimmer and the vocals are wispy, covering the entire record in a gloss that’s in no way grounded in reality. One of its biggest benefits (and problems) is the clear lack of standout tracks, from the formless 7 minutes of album opener “In A Deep Time” through the final five minutes of “A Strange Land Discovered”, you drift through as the titles suggest with little grasp of space and time. There’s really nothing too catchy, and the oft-indecipherable vocals help prevent much from sticking with you anyways. For album purists, this should be a delight, while single song obsessives would do best to look elsewhere for compelling tracks. They may not have known what they were doing when they started crafting a keyboard-heavy record without any prior knowledge of the instrument, but the end results are delightfully off-kilter without being too obscure. It leaves you wondering – if they can make something this good from an instrument they knew nothing about, what can they do with instruments they’re already intimately familiar with?