It’s funny how bands drift in and out of your life. I’d seen Torii (a shifting, poppy bunch of Leideners) a number of times a couple of years ago and ended up on nodding terms with the singer Domenico. And then, as things sometimes do, everything went quiet and I forgot all about them. Suddenly they’re back on Den Haag’s enterprising Mink label, with a set of songs that pack a quiet but notable punch. Life’s like that.
I’m not sure the LP’s title, ironically meant or not, really captures the spirit of the songs. For, whatever that earlier form was, it wasn’t (in my experience anyway) any kind of return to a statement as good as this.
Though it must be said, matters seem a little underwhelming at first. Return To Form starts off with ‘Forward Retreat’ a track very much like an upbeat take on early Julian Cope, a C21st ‘Laughing Boy’ or ‘Head Hung Low’ (maybe it’s just the melancholy chord sequence and the chiming “brang” of the guitar which has something of Copey’s axeman, Steve Lovell). Then we have a minute-long reflection that goes under the name of ‘Pulse’. Both are seductive enough but neither really make a mark; perhaps there to settle the listener in for the rest of this trip.
Things really kick off with the splendid single ‘Heat Lightning’; a very moreish mix of Modern Dance-style screeches and squeals and a great riff that keeps everything else on the sonic straight and narrow. The build-up towards the frenetic end is super too. Other highlights are the gorgeous ‘Is It Now’, which is up there with the Charlie Brown theme in the sentiment stakes and the preppy love song ‘Passing Thoughts’; a soundtrack to drifting downstream in a punt. Its successor ‘Antwerpen’ is another lost ’60s soundtrack blessed with a lovely harmonic switch that bitter-sweetens the melody to great effect.
A word about the vocals. Whilst they don’t immediately grab you, they do have an honesty and inner resolve about them that is extremely hard to fake. Whatever emotional hoops Domenico Mangione has had to jump through, and however gauchely he sometimes puts his message across, there is no doubt that these are heartfelt songs, born of real experience. They’re carefully weighed, to boot. It’s almost as if he’s had to pick words that don’t propel him into a blubbering mess when singing them. No false flag outrage or image-acting here.
Listening to this album is a bit like watching the clouds go by. Somehow the effort to concentrate, to delineate a particular shape or describe a particular sensation can be a great effort, outside of surrendering to the experience as a whole. That feeling is reinforced by long instrumentals like the cleverly named ‘Tongue Tied’, or what are effectively loosely organised washes of sound, such as ‘Oh Nola’. But sometimes what feels like an exercise in drifting can suddenly catch the listener in its claws. ‘Sinuosity’ is a great example: initially drifting along, the listener gets two major shifts, the second a stripped back riff four minutes in that then sets up a perfect counterpunch refrain. However much the listener recognises what is coming it still feels like a powerful statement.
There’s a lot going on in Domenico Mangione’s head, that is for sure. But if he and Torii can continue to make music like this, then navel gazing over this form business can be quietly shelved.