Art rock is experiencing a major obsession with mythology right now. In 2023, HMLTD released The Worm, a concept album where an earth-eating worm evolves into a metaphor for mental health struggles. Then, Squid followed with O Monolith, comparing witch trials to current day police brutality and writing unusually nuanced histories of the rat. Both albums were wildly ambitious, totally arresting, and deeply engaged with both past and present.
Now it’s 2024, and I’m observing six-piece Tapir! amble into the arena with their debut album. They’re a South London six-piece who first caught my attention at Visions Festival, where they sported siren-red papier-mâche masks and played some astonishingly sophisticated music. After teasing audiences with two EPs consisting of two acts, the band have finally unfurled the full story with this debut: The Pilgrim, Their God, and The King of my Decrepit Mountain.
Tapir! modernise their medieval pilgrimage by pairing their narrative with gentle drum machines, fingerpicked guitars, and soothing cornets. It calls to mind a more pastoral figuration of Radiohead, also encouraged by vocalist Ike Gray’s flips from nasal call to tranquil falsetto. Tapir! aren’t interested in sounding too clean and squeaky, either; crackles and scuffles populate the album. It possesses a uniquely quirky, DIY charm, which is the most breathtaking aspect of their record.
Where Tapir! stumble is writing a compelling narrative to hook the music around. ‘Act 1’ introduces the protagonist of the pilgrim, who must follow a swallow and venture into the Nether. ‘On A Grassy Knoll’ excels at creating a lush, breezy atmosphere and gorgeous chord progressions. But there is no tension to be found in the narrative; the band spends most of Act 1 hinting at a ‘Nether’, but giving no sense of danger or doom.
Along the way, The Pilgrim encounters a plethora of characters, but the writing is so oblique that it’s hard to be fully immersed into the journey. Sometimes, this obliqueness is artful – in ‘The Nether’, the pilgrim meets a murderous creature that “shakes my head and tears my leather”. At other times, it’s frustratingly vague, and there are few sentiments to be extracted from these characters, such as the ghostly ‘Eidolon’.
Where Tapir! succeeds at creating narrative is sonic, not literary; Act 2 introduces a grittier guitar tone that creates an unstable journey across the sea for our pilgrim. ‘Broken Ark’ marks a more mournful, melancholic tone with its drooping cello; ‘Gymnopedie’, transforms Erik Satie’s minimalist motif into a stirring wayfaring anthem.
The final act of the album lacks the focus of its preceding parts. ‘Untitled’ feels like a hastily-written filler song, whilst ‘My God’ acts as a shoehorned prologue with its clumsy references to iPhones and Hugo Boss.
The band boldly finishes on a seven-minute odyssey, one which hints that the pilgrim’s undoing is his refusal to change, a pattern doomed to play out again and again. It’s a grand flourish to the end of the album; a move that shows way more balls than the entire album put together.
The Pilgrim… is a superficial exploration of mythology, using it more as a springboard for their multimedia aspirations. It’s a well put-together collection of tracks, but the record lacks any edge or bite. Seemingly, it’s a story with not much to say.