By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
In Ryan Olcott's world, everything is upside-down and backward. On the debut album by his band Mystery Palace, he holds his entire universe up to a funhouse mirror that transforms all things—including those he can't see or touch—into their polar opposites.
For a good decade, the former 12 Rods frontman was famous for his signature scream, a wail that was as melancholy as it was exhilarating—a wail that got the band serious national buzz, resulting in a major-label deal. Yet here, Olcott's yell has become a timid, faint whisper. Sometimes his voice is barely there, hovering between two worlds at once. It hangs like smoke and bends around corners, entering perfectly disjointed and chaotic spaces like an apparition.
And true to the laws of his inverted universe, shaking up the snow globe and turning it upside-down has only led to more whirlwinds and warped dichotomies. The end result—a series of whooshes and beeps and dreaminess and restlessness—is as delicate and ethereal as a snowflake and as uneasy and haunting as imagining what it feels like to be buried in an avalanche.
Living in a world turned on its head also has left Olcott with a number of questions. Nearly half of the tunes on the 10-song album are full of uncertainty: "When I die...will you be with my baby tonight?" he wonders on the offbeat, beat-laden "Every Hour." Over synth blips and spurts and burps and future-is-now irony, he asks for someone's identity on the Laurie Anderson- and Kraftwerk-inspired song "Two-way Stranger." ("Two-way stranger on a telephone, where do you come from?") And on "What Are You Whispering?," he begs to know the words he can't quite seem to understand.
Drums skitter and pitter-patter along, like baby birds' translucent hearts working overtime, looking like they could burst through their pink, thumbnail-sized chests at any moment. A funky bass line permeates throughout, adding an oddly groovy and dance-y feel to an otherwise tense space where Olcott's voice gnaws and pleads and synth samples do a jittery jig of death. It's the sound of the world interrupting Olcott's thoughts, and vice versa. And there's a pong ball, bouncing around the edges of it, trying to escape.
There are bright moments among the wonderfully dark, too, as in the song "You're a Whore." Sure, its title might be a bit disconcerting. And what's so bright about a whore? Yet it just might be the most beautiful song on the album. Olcott moans and ooohs and aaaahs over swirling samples and nervous beats. And what could be a sweet homage to, say, tiny, bleating baby-bird hearts, is actually made into more of a painful kiss-off simply by its beauty. And for Olcott, it's a contradiction that makes perfect sense.