One thing is certain about Nottingham sextet Seachange: they're not concerned with your delicate sensibilities. As proof, their debut full-length starts off with a woman's gruesome murder at the hands of her lover: "So as she lay there sleeping / He snapped a thick branch from a tree / Took it to her pretty soft head / Spilled her blood onto the green" (from "Anglokana"). As beginnings go, it's completely unexpected and somewhat disconcerting...and more than a little ballsy. Turns out, that's a pretty accurate description of the album in general.
With their swirling string arrangements and clean guitar power chords, Seachange sound remarkably like Arab Strap -- if the latter didn't compose their songs in a drunken, melancholic stupor. Despite the occasional oblique narrative, Lay of the Land is remarkably accessible. Although the album trades heavily on churning melodies and pounding rhythms, the songs maintain a sense of ordered commotion throughout, as if Seachange channelled all their wild-eyed fervency into the relative structure of song. To a great extent, this undertone of madness should be credited to violinist Johanna Woodnutt, whose efforts add a haunting lunacy to what might otherwise be rather common -- albeit well-executed -- alternative rock.
Apart from lovely string arrangements, Lay of the Land's lyrics and vocals really draw attention. Songs about murder and mayhem tend to do this, of course, but the subject matter isn't the only arresting element. Vocalist Dan Eastop delivers his lines in a choppy, almost tuneless style well-suited to the songs' complex narratives. There's something jarring about this balance, though. Perhaps it's the production, which places the vocals at the forefront, or the matching clarity of vocals and guitars, which forces them to battle for your attention, or the Joycian-length stories, which refuse the palatable verse-chorus-verse structure. Whatever the cause, there's a certain unevenness at work here that ultimately lends itself well to the album's precarious tone.
As ordered as it is wild, as gorgeous as it is gruesome, Lay of the Land is indeed a ballsy record. There aren't many bands that can make "disconcerting" work for them, but Seachange accomplish it like mad geniuses.