Those who simply took Shield Patterns at face value after listening to the breakout single “Dust Hung Heavy” likely thought debut album Contour Lines was going to follow in the steps of CHVRCHES, Phantogram, Purity Ring, et al with a dose of catchy electro pop. Did we forget that Richard Knox was involved?
Aside from running Gizeh Records, Knox stays busy in his numerous musical projects: A-Sun Amissa, Glissando, Rustle the Star, and now Shield Patterns. Aside from being a gifted musician, Knox is also connoisseur of musical styles and seems to effortlessly move through many of the underground’s more prominent genres of the past twenty years. Shield Patterns is less about riding the current wave of synth and electro tinged dream pop, and much more about paying tribute to the downtempo/trip-hop sound of the 90s.
Of course, Countour Lines is still filtered through Knox’s penchant for ambiance. As such, the album crawls out the gates with a couple of sluggish tunes that sound like they could be short takes from one of his other projects.Claire Brentnall’s vocals penetrate the haze, and we begin to see the dynamic partnership that they’ve formed. Knox provides a thick cover of fog and Brentnall fights it off as best she can. When Brentnall’s vocals rise to the forefront and Knox provides instrumental complement, Shield Patterns is at its most pop-centric and commercially viable: See “Dust Hung Heavy, “Ruby Red,” or “Ghost Words,” for example. On the other extreme, Knox’s experiments take center stage on tracks like “Shade,” “Present State,” and “Charon.” The glue lies in the middle ground — and arguably the highlights of the album — where the differing styles merge into a single vision. “Carve the Dirt,” “The Rule,” and even the decay into the unknown found on “Dead Air” remind us that every cloud has a silver lining, and every rose has a thorn.
In the end, Contour Lines is endlessly fascinating. It’s an album that could have easily gone down a dozen or more paths, depending on the whims of its creators, and it somehow seems to explore a little of all of them. Therein lies it’s appeal; some may find that the album does not sufficiently flush out any of the main threads, but the confidence and musicianship of the work carry it and meld a coherent blend of styles into Shield Pattern’s sound. Besides, isn’t the idea that a band could operate outside the boundaries of normal genre fence posts sound rather liberating? Knox and Brentnall have taken a first step.