Shape Of Water – ‘Great Illusions’

By Fiachra Johnston

Imagine it: cool wind in your face, hot summer sun on your back and all the time in the world as you cruise down the scenery of *insert dream road trip destination here* in your *insert dream road trip car here*.

It’s not exactly a genre of sorts but everyone has those songs and those artists they know would play on that classic vehicular holiday. It’s not clear as to whether the Manchester-based duo Shape of Water intended to create an album of this nature, but ultimately echoing the scope of classic desert art-rock bands is what ‘Great Illusions’ does best. While it doesn’t quite reach the staggering highs of that upon which it has built itself, its production’s interplay between scope and instrumentation, along with some killer vocal performances, still leaves it a memorable record.

There’s a lot of aggressive movement of this album, a mix of hyper alternative rock and pop that can be felt in tracks like ‘Perfect Love’, with its soaring chorus and sensual spoken word interludes. Cheesy as it may appear it’s a solid mixture that does strike the balance between melodic and heavy. Aggression morphs as the album progresses, ditching a lot of the pop elements such as ‘The World Is Calling Me’, which harkens back to classic rock and hair metal of the 70’s and 80’s with more cheesy but nonetheless enjoyable guitar solos to boot. Shape Of Water have earmarked synthwave in describing the direction of the electronic elements of this record, but while tracks like ‘Scar‘ have moments where the light retro-inspired synths and deep bassy tones really complement and emphasise the spacious production, too often these elements don’t connect well to other branches of the album, feeling somewhat pushed to the side and underdeveloped compared to the rest of instrumentation.

The slower, more methodical tracks, such as ‘In Your Arms’ with its bright symphonic backing, or ‘Five Days To Shine’, with it’s more foreboding atmosphere reminiscent of a final boss introduction, choose instead to focus more on epic scale through strings and piano, not unwelcome but very much the antithesis to the synths that appear elsewhere.

This culminates in ‘A Silva’ – a nine minute track of rock opera proportions with nods to bands like Nightwish –  which separates the two halves of the album with a truly dazzling instrumental that brings some more of that sinister presence to the album.  It does feel like ‘Great Illusions’ works best when the more operatic elements take centre stage, playing incredibly well with the duo’s focus on creating memorable sonic profiles through that light electronic instrumentation, even when it doesn’t quite hit the mark. The album’s opening, ‘Mars-X’ and its final track, the titular ‘Great Illusions’, echo the falsetto vocals and slicing guitar riffs of classic Muse (not surprising, given the work of Muse and Supergrass producer Paul Reeve on this album), bookmarking both ends of the album with two of the best tracks Shape Of Water have to offer. ‘Still Karma’, also playing off that art-rock ‘Black Holes and Revelations’ sound, is peak desert driving music, with the production generating this sense of vastness through a focus on vocal work. 

Though its sharp synths and rumbling electronica moments won’t hit quite the same way its claimed synthwave influences might, ‘Great Illusions’ still succeeds through its grand scale alone. It’s an album of movement through one vast space to the next, and the variance throughout the journey – with moments both maniacal and reserved but always laser-focused – make it a worthwhile entry to the alt scene.

FIACHRA JOHNSTON

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