When bands attempt to integrate specific older influences into their music, it often devolves into contrived imitation. The auteur rock of Montreal’s Graham Van Pelt, who records as Miracle Fortress, is the exception. His first album, Five Roses, is a field day for critical dissection, overflowing with calculated references to everything from Brian Wilson to My Bloody Valentine. But what prevents these songs from merely showcasing an impeccable record collection is that ultimately they don’t hinge on a listener getting the allusions.
Having said that, it’s nearly impossible to discuss Five Roses without mapping out a whole constellation of artists cannibalized in Van Pelt’s musical vision. These songs are precisely constructed, built from layers of keyboard washes, amorphously distorted guitars and soaring melody. It’s a dense and architectural approach to production that not only makes the whole Fortress name make sense, but also conjures Eno’s use of simple, interlocking elements to create complex compositions.
Along with Eno, it’s Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys that seems to have sunk its hooks deepest into Van Pelt’s brain. The guitar arpeggio that introduces “Beach Baby” leads a listener to expect the exuberant multi-part harmonies of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Instead it progresses at a crawl, adding tiers of synths a la “Some Faraway Beach” from Eno’s 1974 album, Here Come the Warm Jets. Likewise, “Maybe Lately” twists the vocal line from “Don’t Worry Baby” over a bed of echoing sound effects that crest into a hypnotic haze.
If Van Pelt draws on the classics, he’s far from some nostalgic savant playing with a time-capsule aesthetic. As a member of Think About Life, he is very much a part of the contemporary music scene in Montreal. He has clearly absorbed Spencer Krug’s penchant for stitching disparate parts into single songs. (In fact, Sunset Rubdown’s Jordan Robson-Cramer is part of Van Pelt’s touring band.) “Last Train” ramps up from mid-tempo pop — all looping acoustic guitar and finger-snaps — into laser-guided shoegaze. “Blasphemy” pulls a similar trick, its plodding strums morphing into cascading drum accents and guitar squall.
As heavily as Van Pelt’s influences weigh on his music, Five Roses is far from mere homage. This is the work of a precocious and incredibly ambitious songwriter who is playfully navigating the history of pop music. If Van Pelt’s first release is flawed for being overly reverential to the music that inspired it, there’s so much promise here that an even more singular statement is sure to follow.