The brainchild of singer/guitarist Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal was among the second wave of bands to emerge from the sprawling Elephant 6 collective. A native of Athens, Georgia, Barnes was inspired to form the euphoric indie pop group in the wake of a broken romance with a woman from Montreal. He signed with Bar/None Records while living in Florida, subsequently moved to Cleveland and Minneapolis in search of compatible bandmates, and finally returned home to collaborate with bassist Bryan Helium (also a member of Athens' Elf Power) and drummer Derek Almstead.
Of Montreal's debut album, Cherry Peel, appeared in mid-1997, followed that autumn by an EP entitled The Bird Who Continues to Eat the Rabbit's Flower. From the start, the band buoyed its bright, flamboyant indie pop sound with elements of psychedelia and vaudeville; Of Montreal's earliest records also exhibited a lo-fi sound that bordered on twee pop, although the band steadily shed those influences throughout the early 2000s. After Helium left the group in 1998 to focus on Elf Power full-time, Almstead assumed bass duties, while keyboardist Dottie Alexander and drummer Jamie Huggins both joined the lineup. Nevertheless, the band's second album, 1998's The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy, was recorded primarily as a Barnes solo project.
Multi-instrumentalist A.C. Forrester signed on for 1999's sublime The Gay Parade, while the retrospective album Horse & Elephant Eatery followed in the spring of 2000. The group continued with the release of Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse in April 2001 and Aldhils Arboretum in September of 2002, both of which were issued by the Georgia-based label Kindercore Records. With the subsequent folding of Kindercore, the departures of multi-instrumentalist Andy Gonzales and Almstead, and Barnes' marriage, 2003 proved to be an up and down year for the group. Barnes' wife, Nina, joined Of Montreal's lineup as the group signed to Polyvinyl Records and delivered one of their most celebrated records, Satanic Panic in the Attic, in early 2004.
The following year found Barnes exploring a bouncier, synth-driven avenue with the release of Sunlandic Twins, but things began to get complicated in his personal life at the same time. He and his wife moved to Norway for the birth of their baby. Deprived of familiar touchstones, Barnes fell into a deep depression and, upon returning to the States, continued to travel progressively downhill. He and his wife separated for a time, and she returned to her family in Norway with their new daughter. Through the emotional turmoil, Barnes concocted what was to be his darkest, most personal, and ambitious album yet -- Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? -- in 2007. Arriving one year later, Skeletal Lamping furthered that ambitious sound by emphasizing Barnes' outrageous alter ego, "Georgie Fruit," whose influence pushed the album toward funk and prog territory. An Eluardian Instance (Jon Brion Remix EP) followed in early 2009, featuring five remixed tracks from the previous album. Of Montreal's tenth studio release, False Priest, arrived the following year and featured cameos from fellow genre-hoppers Janelle Monáe and Solange Knowles. Songs written for that album but not used saw the light of day in April of 2011 with the release of thecontrollersphere EP. The following year Barnes revisited the raw emotion of Hissing Fauna with the album Paralytic Stalks, exploring themes of self-loathing, revenge, and romantic turmoil to create Of Montreal's most personal offering yet.
How do you approach an album as tantalizingly complex as Paralytic Stalks?
You could begin from a lyrical perspective and appraise the occasion it provides for an unobstructed view directly into the psyche of Kevin Barnes, of Montreal's principal songwriter.
But be prepared -- one listen to "I spend my waking hours haunting my own life / I made the one I love start crying tonight / And it felt good" ("Spiteful Intervention") immediately reveals this is not Barnes filtered through the lens of an adopted persona or invented alter ego.
Rather, these are confessions of an infinitely more personal nature than anything he's written since 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
Amidst dark ruminations on human existence, revenge, self-hatred, and his relationship with wife Nina, one encounters an emotionally raw Barnes struggling to contain his savage thoughts: "So much violence in my head / How are we still alive?" ("Authentic Pyrrhic Remission").
And though it's easy to become totally immersed within the captivating power of these revelations song after song, focusing only on the lyrics would prevent you from fully comprehending the true depth of Barnes's work.
Because in a different, yet equally enthralling manner, Paralytic Stalks's musical dimension proves itself similarly worthy of preoccupation.
For on a sonic level, the album -- recorded at Barnes's home studio in Athens, GA and mixed at Chase Park Transduction with the assistance of engineer Drew Vandenberg (Deerhunter, Toro y Moi) -- is a stimulating array of densely packed ideas presented with stunning agility.
Never before has an of Montreal record moved so fluidly from one song to the next -- each track feeding off the last in what seems a singular album-long movement that never allows you to rip your ears away.
After the addition of classically trained violinist Kishi Bashi to of Montreal's touring line-up, Barnes embraced the idea of working with session musicians (many of whom were Kishi Bashi's friends) for the first time in his career.
During this period, Barnes forged a special connection with Zachary Cowell, a session musician who subsequently arranged all of the album's brass and woodwind parts (and is now the band's newest member).
The experience also emboldened Barnes to venture into previously unexplored territory with his songwriting. As a result, Paralytic Stalks at times resembles modern classical with its intricate compositions, while at others echoes of neo-prog, pseudo-country, and 60s pop can be heard.
Examples of these new elements abound throughout the record, notably on "Wintered Debts," which witnesses its hushed vocal and acoustic guitar intro giving way to a country shuffle replete with pedal steel guitar, as well as the flute-driven, ELO-inspired single "Dour Percentage."
And yet, above all, Paralytic Stalks remains absolutely defiant of any labels that attempt to completely pin down the type of music Barnes creates.
As such, ultimately it doesn't matter what angle you choose as your entry point. Because the album's true value is that it even forces you to question how to approach it at all.
Conceived on the fringe of a contemporary pop music landscape that seldom encourages listeners to dig beyond the surface level to receive satisfaction, Paralytic Stalks is the rare album with the audacity to DEMAND such a response.