“Weird World” is certainly an appropriate title for Stemson‘s second full-length. Its predecessor, “Deleo Creo”, was written and recorded over the course of a month, which certainly didn’t leave too much time for fine-tuning. That’s not to suggest it was an amateur effort; in contrary, the extra time that went into “Weird World” continues to simply build upon the, well, weird sound Stemson is quite possible pioneering.
Of course, to call it weird would certainly be affectionate statement. It’s weird in the sense of its novelty. At worst, it’s benign. At best, it’s curiously fascinating. You don’t need to look further than the cover art to get an idea that the album might be a bit eccentric, what with people standing in line adorning eyeball-shaped hats (helmets?).
Stemson is the brainchild of Stefan Tomlinson of Archabald, which also features Lowercase Noises’ Andy Othling. All this to say Tomlinson keeps some good creative company and certainly has credibility as an artist. Check out Archabald’s 2016 LP here and see why it made my best-of list last year.
Anyway, all tangents aside, Stemson is decidedly different than Archabald’s work. There’s still Tomlinson’s characteristic spoken word, but there’s rap, singing, screaming, and auto-tune all working together for a vocally-diverse album. It’s a mystery how it works, but it does. All of this overlays a variety of electronic musical elements.
Terraforming starts slowly and softly, with Tomlinson singing over a synth bed. However, like much of the album, the track shifts focus seamlessly – in this instance, it’s to a passionate finale that adds in more instrumental melody, introduces some drums, and has even a bit of screaming.
The second track, Squid Kid, was premiered on Stemson’s Facebook page months ago and even in its unfinished state, it set the bar high for the album. It’s unashamedly progressive, with a healthy dose of vocal effects and layering over instrumentation that ranges from chiptune to a choir arrangement. The lyrics definitely shouldn’t be overlooked, either. There’s a level of comedy coupled with an equal amount of profundity.
Old Souls begins with a stomp-and-clap rhythm, quickly followed by autotuned rap vocals. Tomlinson is far from a east side thug, I should clarify. Nerdcore might be an appropriate description. However, there’s a fair share of singing. Like most songs on the album, in the amount of time it takes to describe the style, the entire mood has shifted. There’s a grunting sound (which I assume is some kind of vocal rhythmic element) underlying the final bit that continues to add intrigue to the album.
Time as It Was was released close to two years ago, but it thankfully returns in the context of a full album. The track opens with crooning autotune and lyrics that poke fun at the notions common in Top 40s love songs. It then shifts to a rapping bit that further expands upon these concepts, augmented by a number of heavenly synth layers.
It’s Alright is the first of three interlude tracks. There’s not too much to comment on given its sheer brevity.
Stemson Shuffle is another song that continues with the theme of real relationships, highlighting how many relationships aren’t simply don’t last long. However, it also contains what might be one of my favorite sections on the whole album. “When you clap, clap like this. When you move, just move to the left. When you get there, smile real big. Turn to the right and do it again” is repeated to a degree that might normally be annoying, were it not for the to changes applied to each repetition effectually creating an emotional crescendo.
Cherry Pit Part 2 is possibly the heaviest track on the album, both in terms of emotional context and lyrical vulnerability. It’s hard to discern the subject matter exactly, though it seems to focus on a number of family relationships. There’s some down-tuned vocals ala Twenty One Pilots, combined with more rapping and an overall eerie instrumental feeling that incorporates elements of dubstep.
As an interesting counterpoint, the comical Chocolate Milky Way is next in line. Lyrics are partially nonsensical and the chorus involves pitch-shifting of “You like to say that I’m pretty. You like to say that I’m beautiful. You like to say that I’m gorgeous, but dang girl, you hardly know me.” It’s definitely weird, and it feels off-pitch but it’s certainly an intentional choice and again seems to serve as yet another way to poke fun at conventional love songs.
The second interlude, More Than Her Body, takes listeners to powerhouse that is Snuffaluvagus, which relies on a fair share of rapping, strong rhythmic elements, toyish piano and synth sounds, and a guitar solo from Lowercase Noises’ Andy Othling. The ending is vibrant and powerful before transitioning to a subdued section of vocals over minimalist synths.
High Tower Lover is the final interlude, touching on the importance of interpersonal relationships that go beyond the constraints of romance.
“Would you still love me if you knew / I was dirty through and through?” serves as the primary question on Throw Away Kid, an introspective, laid-back track that wrestles with the human condition and our desire to be loved without needing to be facetious. The ending is triumphant and, well, weird. Lyrically, this is definitely a favorite.
The album closes on Alive, the quietest track on the album. Devoid of the layers of its predecessors, vocals and simple keys are the central elements. It’s another vulnerable track, and the emotion is further amplified by the general negative space and the occasional vocal harmony. The sound of a chair creaking and bits of static make it feel that much more personal and real.
Overall, “Weird World” is one of the most innovative and alluring albums I’ve heard lately. I’m not huge on electronic music as most of it tends to be productive-heavy and unnatural; Tomlinson instead opts for strategic synth use that’s fun without being overbearing and showcases enough progression that even if a certain sound isn’t ideal, it’s never alone in the mix and it’s usually not around for long.
It’s rare to find an electronic-based progressive album, but that’s certainly the best way to describe it. Sure, there are room for comparisons with nerdcore artists, Twenty One Pilots, and SMOTZ, but it doesn’t feel like Stemson’s music has any purposes beyond art and integrity and these comparisons would simply be residual. “Weird World” certainly has its own spot in the electronic world, though – it’s too weird to ever become hugely popular but it’s simply too good to overlook.