Upon concluding the final Eyes to Space show in July 2007, lead singer/ keytarist Jay Cartwright slammed his instrument of six years—the weird old keytar—on the stage of Local 506. Little more than a year later, Cartwright—along with bassist Wendy Spitzer and drummer Dylan Thurston (two-thirds of Cartwright's former crew) and guitarist Joe Mazzitelli of I Was Totally Destroying It—returned to the 506 for the debut of Lemming Malloy, a synth-centric prog pop outfit with a novel twist.
Lemming Malloy is one of a growing number of bands to identify with the relatively new, loosely defined music scene of steampunk. The connection to steampunk—an alternate-history contrivance of eras where the technological imagination of sci-fi collides with the 19th-century stylings of Victorian England—led the band to devise costumes congruent with the style. Cartwright, for example, fashioned an ornate keytar adorned with tubes, reservoirs and wood carvings and dubbed it a marvelon.
These eccentricities put Lemming Malloy in dangerous territory, as they could easily lead to the group being labeled a novelty live act. Sure, some of Lemming Malloy's appeal undoubtedly comes from watching Cartwright and company on stage, wailing on their respective instruments (remember, a keytar ... err, marvelon!) in steampunk get-ups (goggles!). But as a studio artifact, The Return of the Norfolk Regiment—Lemming's debut full-length and the premiere of upstart Neckbeard Records—proves Cartwright's songwriting mettle and the quartet's arrangements and instrumental prowess, sans visual misdirection. (Disclosure: Neckbeard co-founder Bryan Reed is an occasional contributor to the Independent Weekly.)
In that sense, Norfolk Regiment is a success: Opener "Sioux Falls, South Dakota"—one of four carryovers from Lemming's 2008 Avalauncher EP—devolves from a militaristic drumbeat into a steadfast bob, marvelon palpitations and guitar noodles underscoring the yo-yo melodies, to which Spitzer adds high harmonies. Cartwright and Spitzer's harmonies are ubiquitous throughout, whether adding to the nervous ebullience of guitar peals and organ squalls in "House of Cards" or lending an angelic touch to the tension of "Don't Act Like Prey." Spitzer takes lead on "The Curse of Greyface," which shares the spooky, spectral atmosphere of "House" before veering into several triumphant rounds of guitar solos and synth swirls. "Northern Crown," the lone track to emphasize the punk in steampunk, is a breakneck ruckus of revved-up guitar and keys driven by percussive clamor.
Lemming Malloy further escapes the novelty pitfall with its hyperliterate lyrics, which Cartwright uses as an excuse to wax philosophic. The disc's elaborate liner notes include credits for books that inspired the songwriting—from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Great Gatsby to The Theory of the Four Movements and the General Destinies and The Infamous Boundary: Seven Decades of Controversy in Particle Physics—as well as the quartet's mission statement and an essay in which Cartwright explores the differences between the steampunk and cyberpunk movements. His discourse and readings may well prove enlightening to those drawn in by Lemming's unusual trappings. Fortunately, those intrigued by Lemming Malloy's peculiarity will find that there's plenty of substance behind the steampunk disguise, liner notes and all.
Lemming Malloy plays a free release show Friday, May 22, at 10 p.m. at Local 506 with I Was Totally Destroying It and Gray Young.