On “Time to Bring the War,” one of Orbitor’s late-album highlights, singer and primary lyricist Thorben Seiero Jensen states,”Let me be clear/ We’re gonna take the money/ We’re gonna run far.” It’s the kind of thing you’d expect Richard Widmark to say in a 1950s noir: so craven in its bravado, but underscored by a tragic sincerity. As if the failure of whatever disastrous scheme they were concocting were not a foregone conclusion. As if a new city and a little money would be enough to pull them out of the hell in which they reside. As if they weren’t carrying its seeds inside them everywhere they went.
Many of the figures that dot the Danish outfit’s fifth full-length release are haunted, hounded things. See the unnamed masses heard “screaming, waking in the dark night” on electro-R&B romp “Everyone’s Got Dynamite.” See the narrator of “Crystalized Night” who has learned the “worth of pain pills” as a means to silence the voices that come back to him when he goes to sleep. “I think I caught you out there,” Jensen gloats at the beginning of the title track. His voice is a mocking sprite, lilting out of the otherworldly, Vangelis-like opening, delighting in his interlocutor’s mean estate. This enemy, this former lover (the two are often interchangeable in AFM’s world) dangles at the end of her rope, fleeing from “Monsters calling from your past/ Tearing you apart.” The past, as the group constructs it, is a landscape of terror and regret, and it may be the only thing we are truly capable of possessing, whether we want it or not.
This nagging sense of failure that pervades Orbitor may be familiar territory for AFM, whose previous albums have been populated by every stripe of skid row fuck-up and burnout, but the musical backdrop that brings this sordid company to life continues to grow and evolve. The poppier, more robust instrumentation of the And the Running with Insanity EP and Ask Me This has blossomed into a full-on infatuation with 80s New Wave and synth pop. The demur, tinkling keyboard melodies on past songs like “I’m Not Evil” and “Ask Me This” are blown up and fanned out into shimmering dayglo monuments that complement the album’s jarringly bright cover art. Whereas the instrumentation on the band’s earliest recordings were characterized by nakedness and vulnerability, on Orbitor the guitars and synthesizers continue to bleed into one another to create a massive sound that casts the songs’ protagonists in an even starker light: the warm, cheerful textures materializing fictions erected as a distraction from a gnawing desperation that can never be outrun.
Which brings us back to the title track and to its narrator waiting in the wings as his lover descends to her lowest point. The song’s title connotes planetary motion, the movement of great celestial bodies around even greater ones. But while our narrator may be circling an object, his movements more closely resemble that of a vulture. Orbitor as an album plays roost to the carrion birds of shame and regret lurking sometimes out of sight, but never truly gone. And yet, within this bitter truth, AFM bury a kernel of something better in the form of the Kristine Permild-led “Let in All the Ghosts (Rule the World in Rain).” The vision of the world Permild offers is no less broken than that of the rest of the album, the souls she addresses no stronger or more virtuous than any of the others swimming in AFM’s neon ocean of misery, but the song holds a swooning, euphoric quality, nonetheless. The guitars toll like bells on Christmas morning, as she and Jensen trade off on the chorus. Let in all the ghosts, she commands. Confront your past. Face up to the things you’ve done. Here at last is a hope that is more than simple self-delusion, that by facing down the bad shit in our lives we can take ownership of it.
Like the records that came before it, Orbitor is full of beautiful songs about ugly people. It is Alcoholic Faith Mission’s singular talent to make something lovely out of the basest of matter, and we are fortunate to enjoy the fruits of this alchemy.