Review | The prolific Duke Special flirts with perfection on ‘Look Out Machines!’

Duke SpecialLookOutMachines -Headstuff.org

Look Out Machines!

[Stranger Records]

In the ten years since his full length debut, Peter Wilson, more conventionally known as Duke Special, has kept himself very busy indeed. No less than six full length albums followed 2005’s Adventures in Gramophone – add to that this year’s release of Look Out Machines!, and Wilson’s output to date looks fairly abundant, at least when compared to the work rate of some of his contemporaries. What’s even more impressive, and refreshing, is the sense from Look Out Machines! that Wilson isn’t quite done with trying to reinvent himself, and that he may actually be improving as a songwriter as the years go by.

Where some of his more recent offerings have been heavy on piano and orchestral soundscapes, the range of instrumentation has expanded pleasingly here, lending his sound a much more diverse colour palette. It’s evident from the get-go, with curtain raiser ‘Wingman’ teasing the synth involvement that’s to come on the rest of the album, finally opening up to a soaring yet simultaneously urgent and somewhat menacing chorus – distant toms and harsh, rhythmic strings providing the perfect foil to the octave-scaling vocal lines.

The subsequent tracks ‘Elephant Graveyard’ and ‘Step To The Magical’ show a penchant for flawless poppy melody writing that sound familiar yet never cliched, all while providing further examples of perfectly executed blends of instrumentation. There’s a fair bit going here, but Wilson displays an commendable level of effortless control over the various elements. You can’t help but feel that a less skilled artist would have a hard time incorporating all of the elements Wilson attempts to combine here.

On the other hand, Wilson isn’t afraid to take things down a couple of notches, with tracks like ‘Tweed Coats’ and ‘Stepping Stones’ taking a much more intimate approach to the music. It’s mainly just piano and Wilson’s endearing Northern Irish lilt in these songs, with percussion and other assorted sounds merely providing subtle ornamentation, but there’s no loss of confidence or conviction in the more personal moments.

And while not balking at the opportunity to expose himself musically, certainly in terms of the instrumentation, Wilson also doesn’t display any reticence when opening up thematically. ‘Statues’ is a comparatively sparse yet achingly beautiful arrangement about coming to terms with loss, and lyrically it’s very hard to ignore the raw emotion that courses through every syllable and chord, creating a striking contrast with some of the earlier, lighter offerings.

“There will one day come a time

Your name won’t shiver down my spine

I don’t want to get over you

But there’s other worlds to find

Paralysed, don’t want to be

Preserved in absent company”

While certainly not ground-breaking or genre defining by any stretch of the imagination, and while it may be missing that one killer song that could see it penetrate the charts, Look Out Machines! is an excellent showcase of the talents of an artist who, at this stage, has to be considered one of the most consistent in these islands. Some of the song writing here displays such a level of refinement that some segments are frighteningly close to perfection, which is frankly astonishing for an artist who has been producing as much material as Duke Special has over the past decade. Moreover, it’s remarkably comfortable switch in gear when compared to this album’s most recent successors, a shift that can’t be easy to pull off with positive results. Look Out Machines! Is, in summary, highly recommended, particularly for those who have remained ignorant of Duke Special’s talents down the years.

FOUR OUT OF FIVE

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