This fall, Arc Iris releases Icon of Ego, its third groundbreaking album, as a trio that packs the heft of a far bigger band with fully realized sonic and visual intensity. Overcoming rebuffs and rejections, Arc Iris has become an unstoppable force out of necessity. On Icon of Ego, they deliver heavily and ask nothing in return.
The group’s two previous albums, Arc Iris and Moon Saloon, were both released to critical acclaim and fervent fan embrace. Originally formed in Providence, R.I., by singer-songwriter Jocie Adams who was coming off a term with The Low Anthem, the group initially embodied an eight-piece rock orchestra, creating innovative dynamics of rhythm and melody with a full color palette. Four years on, Arc Iris are just three musicians: lead vocalist Adams, keyboardist and sample artist Zach Tenorio-Miller, and drummer Ray Belli. They have crafted a vividly expressionistic new album that reflects both the group’s protean talents as well as its journey of survival.
Soon after its self-named 2014 debut on the ANTI- label, Arc Iris faced considerable adversity. Critical acclaim, tours with St. Vincent and Jeff Tweedy and festivals like Bonnaroo followed, all creating for Arc Iris the belief that they had beat the long music industry odds. However, the group lost its manager, followed by its booking agent, then was dropped from the label. Band members departed. Opportunities evaporated. Through it all, Adams, Tenorio-Miller and Belli worked with undiminished energy and reinvented themselves as a quartet, which included Robin Ryczek on cello. Within two years, Arc Iris self-released Moon Saloon, in the US while British independent record label Bella Union released the album in Europe. Soon after this release, Ryczek left to teach cello in Afghanistan, and the three remaining members once again set about adapting.
Arc Iris assembled its own promotions team and booked its own shows. Notable is what Arc Iris has achieved completely by itself: tours supporting Kimbra, Gene Ween, a complete re-imagination of Joni Mitchell’s Blue performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center, and a growing, international fan base that has remained dedicated throughout.
Icon of Ego finds a happy middle with a smaller label, a more focused support team, and a stronger, more experienced band. Recording at Providence’s Columbus Theater, home to silent movies and vaudeville during the 20s, the band has evolved into a concentrated pop-prog explosion, mixing styles with disparate elements that captivate and surprise.
In Icon of Ego, the band interrogates the notions of celebrity, fame, and idol worship. What makes an icon? How do people fall under the spell of a charismatic other (or entity?)? What is it like to be that icon? Adams’ poetic, nuanced lyrics provide both inquiry and insight. On “Dylan & Me” Adams sings “changing times / you could not have been / waiting to be remembered / a trophy in so many eyes / a Renoir for the great pretenders.”
The group has always embraced theatricality. Displaying an array of costumes, flare, and light rigs, enhanced by choreographed dance moves, an Arc Iris live performance is a proper spectacle that matches the group’s manifest musical abilities and talents. A whole new live experience accompanies the Icon of Ego performances.
With heavy synthesizer work by Tenorio and Adams, and seemingly impossible transitions executed effortlessly by Belli, the songs on Icon of Ego carry a thick, analog electronic sound that harks back to the 70s. Presiding over these are Adams’ powerful vocals that house the energy under pop forms.
Nowhere is this more evident than in “$GNMS,” a complete reinterpretation of “Money Gnomes,” the lead track on the first album. Where the original version carried a folksy looseness, with a banjo and brush drums, the new iteration goes total sci-fi. Any impish charm is wrung out and sculpted into Kraftwerkian logarithms. Plugged-in machines replace acoustic instruments, and the song’s renewal mirrors that adjustment. Witnessing “$GNMS” develop over the years is a rare window into the changing goals of a band, as these played out through the recordings.
Arc Iris is never more self-defined than when faced with difficulty. Icon of Ego is about Arc Iris overcoming adversity and ultimately coming out leaner, sharper, and more fully realized.