Zeros Acts 1 & 2 is the fourth full release from Norwegian group, Laughing Stock (although two of the previous releases were The Island - being the original release (2018) and a reworked version in 2020). It also naturally precedes Zero Acts 3 & 4 released this year, so be warned, there could be some investment of time at least in following this project. Which is no bad thing.
The concept follows the life of the central character, Zero whose birth is announced in Welcome. Whether his arrival is a welcome to the Mother - the other significant character introduced at this stage is another matter. There is an emotional distance from the start, underpinned by the way the timing is held down enabling the band to create a rich wash of sound, imbuing a few notes with unimaginable depths of feeling and heartache. Even before getting to School, Zero is a creature of dark fears, seeking solace in his Imaginary Friend, all themes drawn sympathetically as the piece draws the listener in on a riptide of yearning. School itself seems to offer a way out of the feelings of distance and rejection, only for the opening half, a jaunty bit of indie-pop to give way to jarring chords and a plaintive cry of “There must be something wrong with me.” Child is a heartbreakiing admission of social failure, a graveside lament to the death of youthful hope. Inevitably bereavement gives way to rejection and anger. So the first act closes with the main character in crises from which there seems to be no escape.
In Leave Me Alone, Zero duets with the Mother. The latter her hopes and love undiminished, her melodic lines contrasting with Zero's rejection to the beat of thrashing guitar and gravelly solo base, leaving her voice trailing off in a quasi-optimistic “I guess it's going to be OK”. Will her optimism prove well-founded? You'd probably be right to doubt it. Zero clearly embittered his lot and doing his best Roger Waters at war with the world impression deals with his situation as countless men before have done, by taking it out one way or another on the women around them. My Love Parts 1 & 2 introduces the nearest Zero comes to a relationship away from his family, the part of the object of his attentions being beautifully rendered by Helene Håberg Allum. The music in this half is still mournful, but has a hopeful confident edge, none more so than when Zero takes the decision to leave the constrictions of home life in Last Supper, before standing alone in the eponymous title track. Curtain Falls is a fourth wall-breaking summation of the situation. In contrast to what has gone before it is a simple guitar-backed ballad which nicely draws the fine line between Zero's new found identity in his paradoxical lack of identity, breaking free from his old self, and the challenges which await.
So there you go. A bit of an oddity to review half a piece, but that's how it has been released. I have to say that I very much enjoyed the portrait of Zero. It's certainly not an easy listen, but none of us came here for that and I loved the way Laughing Stock are able to almost effortlessly draw out a narrative in sound, layering impressionistic soundscapes with sharp bright detail and remaining perfectly sympathetic to the narrative. As I mentioned at the beginning, this could be an investment of time and on the evidence of Acts 1 & 2, I've certainly bought in and will be taking my seat early for 3 & 4!
**** Andrew Cottrell
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