No one ever accused Sam Mickens of a lack of theatricality. His prolific output with various avant-indie groups—among them Xiu Xiu, Parenthetical Girls, and his own outfit The Dead Science—has always exhibited a shameless, even decadent obsession with grand gestures and epic dramatism. But Mickens lets it all hang out, slightly for the worse but mostly for the better, on his debut solo album, Slay & Slake. Opening with “Lord Death Man” is a gutsy move; imagining Seventh Son-era Iron Maiden collaborating with Antony And The Johnsons, the song starts with soaringly harmonized metal guitars before slinking into a skeletal threnody complete with a backing choir (which includes Shudder To Think’s Craig Wedren, no stranger to theatricality himself). Mickens’ trembling vibrato oozes soulful runs and operatic flutter; it’s used to unsettling effect on “Grisly Ghouls,” where it’s pitted against disjointed verses from guest rapper MF Grimm.
As the album progresses, however, its execution begins to lag behind his ambition. Mickens seems to have spent more time titling tracks like “At The Mountains Of Madness/Ebb Tide” and “Goodnight Human Torch/There Must Be More To Life Than This” than actually crafting the music, which relies too heavily and obviously on the Robert Wyatt/Scott Walker school of art-pop minimalism. But when Mickens strikes a graceful pose between brooding abstraction and glammy abandon—which he does often, most successfully on the disjointedly lush “Masked Woman”—it makes it clear that Slay & Slake mostly benefits from a stifled self-editor.