Babal, Who Will I Be When I Leave?, 2022
Tracks: 3 Minutes (7:12), Sitting Pretty (6:54), Corkscrew Rider (8:22), Dead End Friends (4:35), The Wolf Slips Up Quickly (6:17), Made Without Instructions (5:00), Baby Wants Freedom (7:59), Doors (12:10), Who Will I Be When I Leave? (3:52)
On the inside cover of the digipack for UK band Babal’s “Who Will I Be When I Leave?”, vocalist, composer, and lyricist Karen Langley describes this record as “a fluid, living train of music” that she and guitarist Rob Williams got on together. Well, this album is certainly a “trip.” The album is overbearingly quirky, which sometimes works and other times doesn’t.
At points the songs offer glimpses of enjoyable melody and interesting guitar tones. “Sitting Pretty” opens in such a way, along with interesting synth motifs throughout, but Langley’s vocals and vocal delivery really leave a lot to be desired. So much of her singing sounds more like talking, with often grating vocal melodies. This unsurprisingly distracts from the music itself. The vocals could perhaps be tolerated if it weren’t for various repeated vocal lines that get rather grating. On “Baby Wants Freedom,” the line, “Baby wants freedom, baby wants a ride” gets really old really quickly.
And yet, at other points, Langley’s voice reminds me of Adrian Belew, with a passionate talk-singing of hearfelt lyrics. There’s a passage in the last two minutes of “Sitting Pretty” that features this, and it almost works, but then a disjointed vocal line follows that’s out of sync with the music, leaving me more annoyed than interested. Langley’s voice reminds me a lot of Tim Bowness – very similar tone. If you’re a fan of Bowness’ voice, then you’ll probably not have the same opinion of this as I do. Personally, I’ve struggled to enjoy Bowness’ voice, to the point that I usually don’t give his albums more than a passing listen. The way he sings, the tone – it just doesn’t work for me. I have a ton of respect for him, and I spend more money than I care to admit at his store, Burning Shed. But his voice is still a barrier to entry for me to his music.
Babal’s music walks a fine line between traditional rock and avant-garde, and taken by itself, the music is rather pleasant. The opening 45 seconds of “Corkscrew Rider” has a smooth jazz vibe with swirling guitars and synths. Even if the vocals distract from it for me, I find a lot to enjoy in the guitar work throughout the rest of the song, much of it reminding me of Robert Fripp and King Crimson at their more sedate. I do find the vocals on “Doors” to be smoother and less irritating, the the Frippiness in the guitars is amped up even more, making this a fun listen. And at over 12 minutes in length, it’s the proggiest song on the record.
The lyrics are a big part of this record, and while I don’t particularly enjoy their delivery (and I think there’s too much repetition at points), they are well thought out. Apart from “The Wolf Slips Up Quickly” (written Lee Henderson), Langley wrote all of the lyrics. There’s a lot to digest in them, but they remind me a lot of modernist imagist poetry, with various short scenes created in words that work together to tell a bigger picture. Sure, this isn’t Eliot, but I appreciate the approach.
The album is long, and being heavy on vocals that don’t do much for me, I found it dragged on a bit. Perhaps if the instrumental passages had been longer, it would have given me more of an opening to really get into the record. With that said, Langley’s vocals might not bother you as much. If you like Tim Bowness, I’d say definitely check Babal out because his vocal and musical work and this record share a lot of similarities.
Listening past what I disliked into the music itself, I found much to appreciate in the guitar soundscapes, the bass, the synths, and the drums. They work together to create a spacey and experimental landscape, including elements of heavier rock and jazz when needed. The few brief instrumental passages and guitar solos piqued my interest, demonstrating the promise found in this record. Because of the vocals, however, I don’t think this will be one I return to frequently.