The Impossible Shapes craft soft places for ears to fall
Caught between youthful buoyancy and the anchor of adulthood, twenty-somethings can feel like they’re drowning.Getting a job seems a horrendous hassle, and no mere nightmare can compare to the torrential storms of romance. But 25-year-old Impossible Shapes frontman Chris Barth knows just how to deal with the woes of a young-life crisis: he escapes to a land filled with princesses and demons wandering through haunted forests or rowing down mythical rivers.
The band’s name comes from a term M.C. Escher used to describe his bewildering graphic images, his “impossible shapes.” And though its unassuming songs don’t claim to be miracles of mathematics or even of music, the name’s still apt, as they recall the whimsical wonder of Escher’s dreamscapes, ripe with mythical imagery filtered through a folk mentality tinged with psychedelia and sparkling pop.
Though the Shapes’ music might be a better accompaniment to staring at the stars on your best friend’s roof than it is for sitting on a barstool sipping PBR, the Pilot Light has become a favorite haunt of this Bloomington, Ind., band. “Knoxville’s one town we’ve been playing in since the beginning,” says Barth. “We’ve been playing at the Pilot Light for about five years and we really like Knoxville.”
Anyone who frequents the Pilot Light, in fact, has probably seen one or more Shapes members in one band or another, as all four partake in a tangle of solo and side projects. Several members play in the noise-punk outfit John Wilkes Booze. “It’s a nice outlet to do something different. It’s nice sometimes to play bass and not be the frontman,” says the soft-spoken Barth. JWB’s frontman Seth Mahern coincidentally just moved to Knoxville and is playing under the name Lord Fyre, peddling tunes Barth describes as “noisy, chanting and apocalyptic.” Barth plays solo under the name Norman Oak, and bassist/keyboardist Aaron Deer is the man behind the instrumentally lush Horns of Happiness. Drummer Mark Rice and Jason Groth, who plays guitar and is currently not touring with Impossible Shapes, both back Jason Molina in the mesmerizing Americana rock group, Magnolia Electric Company.
Despite its multitude of side projects, the Shapes has been pretty prolific in its five years, with six full-length albums, including the critically adored We Like it Wild , which marked the band’s debut on Bloomington indie label Secretly Canadian. And we can only expect more of the same, as Barth and Deer recently started their own studio in Bloomington. “It’s been really nice because we’ve been able to do our own stuff on our own time and be spontaneous,” says Barth.
The Shapes’ latest album, Horus , reads like an epic poem, all of its songs connecting loosely, set in that magical land of Barth’s imagination. The opening chords of “Bombs” twinkle softly, not letting on that the song is about abandonment and endings. Likewise, “Putrefaction” seems to describe the atrophy of a relationship, placing it in the context of rowing and drowning in a mythical sea. Several songs cast lovers and ex-lovers as princesses and demons. Then, breaking with the rest of the record’s sound, which is something between the Flaming Lips and the Beatles at their most psychedelic, “I Move by the Moon” is steeped in obvious, endearing simplicity, with the lovelorn words, “I am in love with your loneliness…don’t kill yourself tonight, there’s a fire you can’t put out tonight.”
It may not be daring compared to some of the Shapes’ prior recordings, but Horus is calming and cathartically sad, along the lines of (but not quite as suicide-inducing as) Beck’s break-up saga, Sea Change . “It’s a pretty dark album,” says Barth. “It was a tense time for all of us. We were back in our hometown and going through typical problems of being in your twenties. I was exploring the dark side of relationships and just trying to tell stories.”
While touring and recording full time is one way to escape the shackles of adulthood, Barth realizes he’s lost some of the awe and wonder of youth. “I’m actually still trying to live like a kid,” he says. “But with music, I miss being able to be blown away by something. It’s easier to be bitter about things when you’ve seen a million shows and a million bands.” He’s obviously got some kid left in him, though, as the Shapes’ music feels like a favorite fairy tale—fuzzy and comforting, and just a bit enchanted.
Who: The Impossible Shapes w/ Fistful of Crows and The Light Eaters