The Pictish Trail – Future Echoes [Lost Map]

Appropriately, by an uncanny streak of chance, Johnny Lynch shares his surname with one of cinema and television’s darkest directors, David Lynch.

What David Lynch brought to the rainy, misty lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest in Twin Peaks, Johnny Lynch brings to the western isles of Scotland, in all their moody glory of pathetic fallacy.

 

This is Lynch’s third album (Secret Soundz, his first, was split into two volumes) released as The Pictish Trail, a name which evokes the boggy mires of Scotland’s folkloric history, at the same time as hinting of a trail, of some path connecting past and future.

Indeed, the album’s title, Future Echoes, evokes the notion of a constantly haunted temporality, in which the present and future are inhabited with images and echoes and scraps of memories; an idea that trickles through the record as it explores themes of cyclical time, mortality, loss, existential disjuncture and alienation.

’Half Life’, for instance, deals with the shifting of relationships, the preservation of identity against the passing of time; tenderly Lynch sings “we will always decay / our self-effacing lives”, a humble admission of life’s inevitable fading.

The song’s dialectic of mortality/immortality is expressed in the tension between groaning synths, stammering beats, robotic echoes and Lynch’s pure and sonorous voice, which at the climax soars in a kind of sublime expression of human fear: “I’m terrified I’m nothing”.

Still, Future Echoes is certainly not all gloom: it’s perfect, pastoral psych pop with a dash of Scottish melancholy and the ethereality of its rural homeland, the heritage trail that leads through haunted indie rock (Idlewild, Twilight Sad) and straight down to the cacophonous dream pop of The Jesus and Mary Chain (especially on Psychocandy) and Cocteau Twins.

However, unlike some of its musical forebears, Future Echoes is more about glossy production than shoegaze; the vocals here, shining among a web of often complex instrumental arrangements, are clearer even than on Lynch’s previous albums, where the vocals often underwent stronger electronic treatment.

On ‘Until Now’, for instance, the effortless harmonising of Lynch’s vocals, sprinkled with electronic twinkles, juxtaposes nicely with the song’s syncopated guitar strumming and calls to mind Beck (especially the Beck of Sea Change and Morning Phase), the way the honey-smooth vocals lead us through an elaborate latticework of strings, synths and electronic echoes.

Lead single ‘Dead Connection’ is a danceable, funkily upbeat indie track where the mesmerising overlap of distorted and clean vocal deliveries hints at the echoes of the album title, its catchy, percussive-heavy chorus surprisingly reminiscent of noughties electro hits by new wavers CSS.

Its video certainly pays tribute to the neon aesthetics of mid-noughties nu rave, as a shimmering cutout figure of a headphone-wearing Lynch, clad in the kind of gear you would wear to a Klaxons disco, stares in the mirror and walks through endless doorways, picking up phones that creepily connect back only to his own voice – it’s unselfconsciously fun, building up to a mise en abyme of dancing figures which captures playfully the no-less sinister acid-trip distortion of self-alienation.

Other standout tracks include the dark psych rock of ‘Lionhead’ and the surrealist grooves of ‘Easy with Either’ and ‘Rhombus’, which both employ geometric imagery, with “my head’s at 90 degrees” (‘Easy with Easter’) and the tessellating image of the rhombus which becomes almost a figure for the repetitive, enveloping mass of the song itself: “you enter the chorus / you made it before us / we cannot let go / struggling out”, unraveling eventually with the melancholy, cathartic plea, “don’t let go”.

The Pictish Trail’s psych rock legacy is also demonstrable on ‘Who’s Comin’ In?’, which transitions from the quiet, moody and introspective opening to a throbbing, Tame Impala-worthy finale.

Throughout the album, Lynch’s genius lies in his eclecticism: his ability to combine raw emotion with surreal imagery, the timbres and beats of rock and electronica (a winning combination achieved here in a manner not dissimilar to Caribou and Four Tet), the expansive with the minimal.

Penultimate track ‘Strange Sun’ sees a return to folkish routes, with soft vocals and acoustic strums mixed in with ambient nature sounds and lyrics which lead towards the seductive glow of “the strange sun”.

In a sense, the album feels like an odyssey of sorts, moving through its existential dilemmas and reflections on life and death, passing through the sun and into the closure of ‘After Life’, going out with a bang with the track’s funky beat, twisting bass and accented handclaps.

The song’s insistence on “never coming back” and the closure implied by the “after life” by no means detract from the album’s recapitulating impulse: this is an expansive, atmospheric journey, both energetic and melancholy, jarring and hypnotic – a trail of musical and narrative exploration that begs to be taken again and again.

Words: Maria Sledmere

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