There is something instantly familiar about the songs of Portland indie/folk quartet Priory, despite the fact that the band’s recently released self-titled album is the group’s debut full-length. It’s not that their sound in any way plagiarizes other great records past, although parallels could perhaps be made to contemporary indie darlings like Local Natives and Arcade Fire; rather the members construct their parts in a way that is comforting, as if this were the type of music the listener wanted to hear without even knowing it beforehand. This feeling of rediscovery, of dusting off a favorite record with the wisdom of experience and distance from the first listening, is one that permeates the twelve tracks that make up Priory.
The instrumentation on this record is, in great part, what makes the band’s songs so classic in their appeal. Going beyond the standard pop-rock fare of guitar, bass drums, and vocals to incorporate glockenspiel, keys, and even some programming, Priory still manages to give each instrument sufficient space in which to perform. While modern bands that label themselves as “experimental” often believe the quickest way to make their music stand out is by layering as many sounds on top of one another simultaneously, Priory takes a more effective approach by allowing each individual piece room to breathe; in this sense, their music is much more orchestral in its arrangement.
The song “Kings of Troy” opens with Kyle Dieker’s delicately-picked acoustic guitar underneath the dual vocal melody of Dieker and lead vocalist Brandon Johnson which is both earnest and youthful in its delivery; additional instrumentation, including bass, electric guitar, and bells, is only brought in when the song calls for it and steps aside when it is no longer needed. The digital Postal Service-esque opening rhythms of “Lady of Late” pulse with computer precision throughout the front half of the song before morphing into a more natural, live-sounding performance of glockenspiel, crunchy bass, and drums that lag behind ever so slightly, although not because of a sloppy performance; taken in context, it is clear the band is really just playing with their sonic palette.
Through Priory’s game of musical chairs, Johnson’s vocals on “Searching” bring the listener to one of the record’s emotional peaks. His melody doubling the lone guitar line beneath it, Johnson is most vulnerable as he reflects, “I’ve been searching for my mother / I cannot explain why she’s so cold / I’ve been searching for my father / I cannot explain why he grows old.” Composed while bordering on frailty, the vocal performance on this song highlights the qualities one wishes to see in good art: honesty and humanity. As Johnson sings and we listen, the emotional experience is genuine.
The band closes the album with “smaerD yhtroW,” a nod to album opener “Worthy Dreams.” Where the latter is ethereal and delicate, the former drones with the effect of white noise, in part because the melody and lyrics of “Worthy Dreams” are now playing in reverse and as such are present yet somehow slipping away. With the cinematic nature to Priory’s music, the listener may even imagine the end credits rolling on the album’s mini-narrative, a sense of completion being brought to the listening experience. Like so many records that call to mind one of the four seasons, Priory is without a doubt a summertime record but not in the sunny, coconut-oil-smelling, day-at-the-beach sense; appropriately enough, this is a summer evening album, perfect for opening up the back door to one’s porch, pouring a drink, and dragging your lawn chair outside to gaze up into the expanse of darkness, filled with nothing but so much space.
by: Chris Pagnani