It would be an understatement to say that modern progressive rock fans have high expectations for this album.
Some will be expecting a continuation of Oceansize; others, a more straightforward alternative rock album, or an electronic record in the vein of British Theatre, Mike Vennart’s other project with ex-Oceansize collaborator Richard ‘Gambler’ Ingram. Well, The Demon Joke is at once all of these, and none of them. Vennart has always talked of his enthusiasm for the Cardiacs’ chameleonic music as well as the angular, autodidactic alt-rock of Biffy Clyro, and these influences are writ large here.
Opener 255 is by turns intimate, tender and gorgeously anthemic; thick with synths and layered guitar lines, the chorus packs the same emotive clout as Gold Bruise from the first British Theatre EP. Meanwhile, in Doubt’s percussive middle eight, there’s a detectable hint of the kind of head-banging, octave chord-wrung riff that defined classic early Oceansize tracks such as Massive Bereavement.
A stunning effort: youthful, vigorous, knowing and wry.
Ultimately though, the song’s climax is more telling; clean chord shapes counterpoint a rising and falling chiptune motif, before Vennart’s vocal and a carefully phrased lead guitar lick join to complete the crescendo. Referring to Oceansize’s classic Everyone Into Position, the band had always spoken of trying for tracks that could be played on radio; something that has long bemused fans. If anything, this album, and its lead track Infatuate, show that melodic players Vennart and guitarists Gambler and Steve Durose (the latter two providing backing vocals and keyboards here) always did have an eccentric pop-prog record in them.
The staccato string stabs in Rebirthmark and its lilting, off-kilter rhythms are a great restorative after Infatuate’s more straight-laced alt-pop. For all the big hooks in its chorus, Duke Fame is curiously reminiscent of Worlds Apart-era …Trail Of Dead; its extended outro in particular recalling Will You Smile Again For Me, while Retaliate is another upbeat, capricious alt rock tune with shades of Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement wrapped in proggy synth wig-outs.
The only missed opportunity on the record might be Operate, a re-worked version of the first track Vennart released under his own name last year. At the moment everything points to the song being taken to the next level, but that last push over the cliff never quite happens.
A mere quibble, because all considered The Demon Joke is a stunning effort – youthful and vigorous and knowing and wry when it needs to be. Crucially, it fulfils that most pressing of expectations: Oceansize fans are going to love it.