“It was reportedly a very taxing LP to make… but even today the beautiful mysteries remain intact”: Midlake’s The Trials of Van Occupanther is conceptual, esoteric and more prog than indie

Midlake - The Trials of Van Occupanther
(Image credit: Bella Union)

For one of the most acclaimed indie records of its era, the second LP by Denton, Texas’ Midlake has some seriously proggy credentials. A concept? Check. Esoteric-sounding title? Hell, yeah. Cover art mysterious and alluring enough to rival Hipgnosis’ oddest images? Check.

The Trials Of Van Occupanther doesn’t have any Mellotron or flugelhorn – but it does have autoharp, dulcimer and some gorgeous flute courtesy of the band’s then-frontman and chief songwriter, Tim Smith. Better yet it’s a world unto itself: a magical and mysterious place in which the listener can lose themselves.

Opener Roscoe – a Fleetwood Mac-ish gem later given a seven– minute, psychedelic remix by DJ Erol Alkan, AKA Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve – is immediately transporting. Its lyrics takes a fond look back at stonecutters in a late 19th-century pioneering community.

Elsewhere, too, these beautifully wrought, lyrically arcane-sounding songs fantasise about a simpler, less acquisitive existence in the pre-industrial world. ‘Did you ever want to hand over all of your things and start over new?’ runs part of the piano and woody analogue synth-ornamented Bandits.

In addition, this 2006 great American pastoral has songs alluding to 300-year-old giants (We Gathered In Spring) and unreachable, daydreaming girls (Chasing After Deer).

Most intriguing of all, though, is Van Occupanther the song, a perfectly-weighted ballad, which concerns the album’s titular, seemingly put-upon hermit. Who is this enigmatic character who busies himself with ‘years of calculations’ as he ferries around buckets of water, avoiding other members of his community? 

We’re never quite sure, but we assume the guy in the sinister, hand-crafted panther mask on the album cover is meant to be him.  We also sense Van Occupanther’s inherent sadness and learn he has an unrequited crush on a woman ‘who never mentions a word to me.’ It’s certainly hard not to empathise.

Smith would leave Midlake after their next LP, 2010’s The Courage Of Others, but on The Trials Of Van Occupanther, his bandmates seem wholly in tune with his oddly singular vision. As Smith sketches out these wistful, hugely evocative tales in his wounded, emotive baritone, Paul Alexander proves an especially inventive and kinetic bassist, while guitarist Eric Pulido’s feral-sounding guitar solo on Head Home is a beautifully barbed and well executed ambush.

Midlake’s listening at the time was mostly comprised of 70s records by Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. It was reportedly a very taxing LP to make, but the magnificent results speak for themselves; and, even today, the record’s beautiful mysteries remain intact.

None other than The Modfather himself, Paul Weller, was one of the many who declared himself a fan, and that made perfect sense. Here, after all, was a record that really took things back to the wild, wild wood.

James McNair

James McNair grew up in East Kilbride, Scotland, lived and worked in London for 30 years, and now resides in Whitley Bay, where life is less glamorous, but also cheaper and more breathable. He has written for Classic Rock, Prog, Mojo, Q, Planet Rock, The Independent, The Idler, The Times, and The Telegraph, among other outlets. His first foray into print was a review of Yum Yum Thai restaurant in Stoke Newington, and in many ways it’s been downhill ever since. His favourite Prog bands are Focus and Pavlov’s Dog and he only ever sits down to write atop a Persian rug gifted to him by a former ELP roadie.