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Borrowed Beams of Light - Stellar Hoax

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Artist: Borrowed Beams of Light

Album: Stellar Hoax

Label: Speakertree / World Records

Review date: Aug. 5, 2011

Borrowed Beams of Light’s first full-length bursts with exuberance. Adam Brock and Nathan Walsh, at various points, pound piano keys, bang on cymbals, and break into giddy wordless spates of “ah-ah-ahs” and “whoa-oh-ohs.” There’s a caffeinated jitter just under the surface on even the tenderest, feyest indie-pop intervals of Stellar Hoax, even in the luminous, waltz-time “Nightwatch.” Elsewhere in the faster tunes, you can hear a hint of Danielson’s existential glee in the way that Brock’s voice frays at the high end into sheer vibrating euphoria.

Both Brock and Walsh come from Charlottesville, Va., where Brock is the drummer in an outfit called Invisible Hand. Borrowed Beams of Light came about roughly two years ago, when Brock found himself with some ideas for songs and no outlet. He and Walsh worked together on a single, “Julie (What’s the Spell),” to some positive local reviews, then raised money via Kickstarter to fund Stellar Hoax. The album is said to be inspired by the 15th century Voynich manuscript, an encrypted document which has puzzled scholars for hundreds of years, written in hieroglyphics in what appears to be a natural, if unknown, language. Opener “Plants” makes liberal mention, for instance, of the unrecognized plant species whose drawings illustrate the manuscript (the “chimeric plants”). “Holy Cow” references the “glossolalia,” or automatic writing, posed as one explanation for the mysterious document. Most believe the Voynich to be a fabrication, but its beauty, complexity and ultimate falsity makes for a handy metaphor for art.

Brock and Walsh, however, are never weighed down by ideas. Indeed, Stellar Hoax proceeds in a manic, headlong way, careening from one frantic, kit-pummeling ecstasy to the next. The action clears once in a while for moments of surprising lyricism. “Half Light” emerges early on from the wreck and carnage, framed at first by just a guitar strum or two, and embodying the fragility of existence in the phrase “my bones are made of beams of light.” Yet even here, in one of the disc’s most contemplative cuts, a burly mid-1970s guitar solo (think Queen or Journey) frames the verse. The wistfulness ends in pop exuberance.

Stellar Hoax gains momentum as it hums along, culminating in two of its best tracks. “Codebreakers” pulls off the balance of aggressive guitar textures, breaking for Syd Barrett-ish fancies, moods flickering and shifting as the song proceeds from one section to the next. The titular finale sums up the disc’s fascination with art, artifice and mortality in a chorus that proceeds first with just piano and percussion and later with a full band’s urgency: “This stellar hoax of mine / let it shine / let it shine / If it don’t last all night / that’s fine / that’s fine.”

Stellar Hoax wrestles continually with difficulty, incorporating abstruse ideas into busy pop arrangements in a way that seems more like a worthy attempt than a finished product. Yet the band largely pulls it off, on a wave of joyous energy. Their songs may be as fanciful as the imaginary plants in the Voynich manuscript, and the lyrics just as inscrutable. Still, this is no hoax. The emotional content is real and powerful and immediately accessible.

By Jennifer Kelly

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