Review: Virgin of the Birds – Winter Seeds

VIrgin of the bIrdsVirgin of the Birds is an ostentatious rock group from Seattle, whose eighth studio release and debut LP Winter Seeds was recently put forth through Abandoned Love Records. The group takes most of its cues from baroque pop groups, most notably early Arcade Fire and The Decemberists in their Hazards of Love era, though on several tracks presented on Winter Seeds, there’s a noticeable amount of instrumentation that seems to be inspired by many of the radio-friendly bands at the forefront of the 2010s garage rock revival. The end result is a baroque-garage-indie-folk rock record that’s mostly aesthetically interesting, but unfortunately falls flat on its impenetrable lyricism and often lopsided genre balancing.

Winter Seeds contains nine tracks which all flow through the different bearings and elements aforesaid. While a song like “Let Me Be Your Bride” is an honest-to-Yeezus baroque pop/indie folk song at its core, the song that follows “Every Revelry” will be instantly familiar to any fan of contemporary indie garage rock. These prove to be the two most prevailing styles on Winter Seeds, but they feel largely unconnected, and never do the two styles coalesce on any given track. Some might dismiss this as the group simply wishing to vary the album, but it just makes the overarching dynamic feel bisected and hard to stay invested in as a whole.

The lyrics on this record are decently-written, but often times impossible to connect with, and it makes whatever sentiments presented in the lyrics just seem cryptic and very impersonal. Frontman Jon Rooney’s lyrical modus operandi reminds me of Jeff Mangum, with the way both are heavy on colourful imagery and occasional character pieces. However, Winter Seeds really lacks any sort of meaningful or quotable lyrics like you’d see from Mangum or others keen on this form of songwriting. The only lyric that I remember after the fact is the line “…and if you change, I’m still your friend…” from the track “Love Comes from Centaurs”, which only stood out to me because of its resemblance to an Alice in Chains lyric. Virgin of the Birds are undeniably visionaries, but what they’re trying to convey to the listener just feels very lost and cloudy.

One thing I did like a lot about Virgin of the Birds’ latest LP is its liberal use of binaural space. While more than a handful of songs have rather straightforwardly laid-out instrumentation, others aren’t afraid to tread into more sonically-expansive territory. The track “Let Me Be Your Bride” has this very bouncy, almost surf rock guitar lead that contrasts with the foregrounded baroque pop feel. Meanwhile, “From Peking” makes use of a very low-pitched theremin that moves back and forth between audio fields similar to that of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive”. It’s moments like these that show Virgin of the Birds willing to change up the formula somewhat on the different disjointed fashions Winter Seeds encompasses.

Despite the musical approaches on this record being highly inconsistent and non-cohesive, I’d be lying if I said that some of the outfits Virgin of the Birds tries on weren’t well-executed, sometimes downright impressive. While I would normally dismiss a track like “Every Revelry” as Japandroids-lite, it does prove that these guys do garage rock justice. The closer on this track “The Talisman and Siobhan” is the longest on the LP. Unlike any other tracks here, this one seems to draw a lot of inspiration from modern prog-rock you’d see from a band like the late Mars Volta. It feels very huge and epic, and the over-the-top bombast of the waning moments of the track are nothing short of grandiose.

Probably my favourite track on Winter Seeds was the stripped-down, lo-fi “Nine Sisters”. Jon Rooney goes solo with his acoustic guitar for this one, and performs it in an environment that sounds like an empty theatre, with microphone-echoed vocals and loud acoustic guitar. The song is quickly dominated by a loud, unrelenting saxophone section that doesn’t let up for a majority of the song. All of the different components and factors at work – the live feel, the powerful saxophone, the sullen acoustic guitar, and Jon Rooney’s emotionally-rich vocals – all culminate into a gorgeous, haunting piece that sounds like very few other songs out there, even within the confines of the lo-fi indie folk subgenre.

When you strip away all of the possible describing adjectives (see: first paragraph), Winter Seeds is, at its core, a rock record that doesn’t know what it wants to be – does it want to be loud and abrasive, slow and emotionally lavish, artistic and imagery-heavy, experimental and otherworldly, what? While other rock albums including 1994’s Bee Thousand and 2007’s In Rainbows have proven that you can be all of these things all on one album, keep in mind that both of those albums stayed good and well within their subgenre of choice. Winter Seeds just seems like it wants to try on as many different approaches to rock music as they can, but absent is any sort of consistent narrative to tie it all together. It just feels like Winter Seeds doesn’t aim to have any sort of concrete purpose.

Still, as previously stated, there are some tracks worth listening to here, and there is certainly talent on display – the instrumentation throughout is very well-performed and vocalist Jon Rooney has a great flavour to his voice and delivery. If what you’ve read has made you interested in Winter Seeds, I would recommend checking out the readily available tracks from it, and if you like what you hear, you may want to consider picking it up for yourself, which you can do so here. Similarly, you can test drive the LP right now by streaming the track “Love Comes from Centaurs” below this devilishly-handsome review.

In spite of how listening to Virgin of the Birds’ debut album made me want to fold my arms, sit down and refuse to continue until the group made their bloody mind up, I do see potential in this band. For all of the capricious subgenre-hopping that’s done throughout the record’s 35-minute runtime, they do all of these sounds justice, and if they stuck to any one of them and developed them, or even better, find a way to mix them all into one consistent subgenre that’s all their own Circa Survive-style, I could honestly see Virgin of the Birds getting more attention outside of their hometown.

Your friend,
Jess Casebeer

About Jess Casebeer

NorthWest Music Scene's reviews editor and multi-genre music nerd, Jess greatly values original content that's informative, personable and entertaining. Soundgarden sits comfortably next to Squarepusher in their CD collection. They're kind of like an innerspring mattress: firm, yet comfortable in its own right. Write: