Dream-pop duo craft killer hooks
Gliss follows 2018s Strange Heaven with a distinct, yet recognizable set of catchy, ethereal songs. With In Utopia, Victoria Cecilia and Martin Klingman fully develop their ’80s- and ’90s-inspired sound, resulting in music that sounds familiar at times, but is wholly their own. Whereas the band’s previous work often borrowed directly from genres and eras past, this effort alludes to their influences obliquely, allowing a clearer expression of the duo’s musical vision. The metamorphosis is quickly evident: the tempos slowed, guitars subdued and the lyrics more considered. What has not changed is Gliss’s ability to write high-quality pop songs with incredibly satisfying musical resolutions.
The band opens with a well-defined guitar riff and menacing tone that would fit nicely on their earlier albums. Cecilia’s curt delivery compliments the thick and grungy instrumentation, singing invitingly if somewhat threateningly on “Into the Night.” Cutting guitars drive the charging “Broke Me” in a similar fashion, marking these two tracks as enjoyable outliers in the selection.
Interposed between these is “Heaven’s Gold” and an introduction to the surreal feel that dominates the album. Klingman’s overdubbed vocals are supported by a softer accompaniment of piano and strings while there is little dependence on guitars. Dreamy feels abound, and the lyrics bolster the surreal atmosphere — “The wind is blowing cold, so don’t go/ the leaves are turning green on Heaven’s row.” Cecilia takes her turn at gently painting a memory on “Downtown,” one of the album’s best tunes. The deliberate melody coupled with a bold progression upstage the airy vocals, finalizing with a strongly anticipated hook that is one of the set’s best moments.
Only a third of the way into In Utopia, Gliss covers more ground than most of their contemporaries might over a couple of albums. They manage to stay varied and interesting largely through their sharing of vocal duties. Some songs are led by Cecilia, others by Klingman. They trade phrases within individual tracks and often come together to deliver pent-up choruses. Relying less on electric and distorted guitar helps to stretch their sonic range, allowing room for synthesized interludes and a couple of piano-based pieces.
The album also features some of Gliss’s best songwriting to date. Their melodies are memorable and creatively layered though the inclusion of pre-chorus and bridge sections, creating pleasingly complex pieces without being tedious. Everything here is considered. It is not coincidental that two of the most contrasting pieces are paired and placed next to one another. The slow and melancholy “Amory” directly precedes the chipper, chorus-led “Set You on Fire.” The tonal contrast is stark even though the personal themes are closely related through their unconvincingly-hopeful lyrics. “In Utopia” and the finale, “Los Angeles,” are similarly juxtaposed. The flowery description of the former, an imaginary location, could not be more different than the mundane reminiscences of cities in Klingman’s past.
In Utopia as a whole is greater than the sum of its songs, and that is high praise considering the quality of the individual elements. Somewhere in the wide mix of sounds and moods, instruments and vocals, the concrete and the imagined, Gliss builds an album that is accessible enough for a casual listen, but nuanced enough for repeated spins.