Stella SapienteFat Wreck Chords
By Cole Faulkner
It was surprising when Wyoming pop-punk legends The Lillingtons emerged from hiatus and gave us their first new EP in a decade, Project 313. It was even more surprising when they announced barely a month later that they would be following the EP with a brand new full length. But it was outright shocking that after years of pestering the band, Fat Mike finally convinced the band to sign with Fat Wreck Chords for their first new full length in a decade. But the cherry on top was that the new record, Stella Sapiente, would be a shadowy concept album of epic proportions.
Now The Lillingtons are far from strangers to concept albums, but their most notable work has primarily channelled their traditionalist pop-punk foundation (think heavy Ramones influence) into themes of retro science fiction (Death By Television, heralded by Fat Mike as one of the best pop punk albums of all time), espionage (Backchannel Broadcast), and 2:00am TV watching sessions dominated by black and white serialized re-runs (The Too Late Show). Stella Sapiente completely reinvents the musical style typically associated with the pop-punk band, instead opting for a dark, brooding atmosphere in line with the press release’s claim that the album is “centered around secret societies, astrology, and the occult.” A fitting reality considering that the album was recorded in total secrecy.
Kody Templeman’s unmistakable vocalizations as well as the tendency to revert to simplistic chord structures remain the marked strand of continuity binding the project together – but the rest is new territory. This becomes immediately apparent for during opener “Golden Dawn / Knights Templar,” which includes a full minute of swelling instrumental intensification that places distortion, drenched and idling in reverb, at the fore. These are not your typical three chord pop-punk ditties, but rather something you’d expect to find amidst the moodiest tracks from horror-punk projects like The Rosedales, Nim Vind, or Blitzkid. “We were chosen by God’s own hand, sent on a mission to the holy land, wanted to kill everything that got in our way,” sings Templeman as they launch into semi-historical lore of ancient societies that took guarded secrets with them to the grave. Likewise, an eerie array of astral chords and production effects lead “Night Visions” and “Cult of Dragon” to conjure images of shadowy robed figures and high priests conspiring amidst concealed catacombs. There’s a haunting quality that absolutely envelopes listeners into the vivid world of which The Lillingtons have given birth.
But this isn’t to say that the album is completely unrecognizable from past works. The Lillingtons tend to wedge a few more “classic” takes between the more ambient offerings. For instance, the stringy pop-punk chords of “Insect Nightmares” and “K6” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on “The Too Late Show,” and “They Live” ups the tempo for some fast paced Ramones-esque speed. While lyrically still extensions of Stella Sapiente, these tracks tend to align more predictably with bands like The Riverdales and Teenage Bottle Rocket. In other words, Stella Sapiente finds balance even amidst The Lillingtons’ unexpected ambitions.
“Unexpected” may be the most appropriate word to describe Stella Sapiente. It only took one listen to “get” what The Lillingtons were going for, but no press release or print synopsis could have braced me for what I would find in Stella Sapiente. Stella Sapiente may not be the album we were all expecting, but that’s only because we had no way of understanding what The Lillingtons were brewing deep within those private recording catacombs. When all is said and done, Stella Sapiente is a landmark album by one of pop-punk’s best kept secrets, and one that may finally see The Lillingtons emerge from the nostalgic shadow of Death By Television with an entirely different legacy.