When The Unicorns disbanded in December 2004, fans were unsure whether to take the disorganized collective seriously. Although the band had predicted their demise numerous times on their 2003 fantastic progressive-pop debut “Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?,” the announcement seemed like just another ‘Corns stunt. But the news was, in fact, tragically correct, with the band citing irreconcilable differences in style and ambition.
After the breakup, two of the Unicorns, Nicholas “Niel” Diamonds and J’aime Tambour, went on to form a new side project: Islands. Fans can now rest assured; Islands’ debut, “Return to the Sea,” is full of delicately crafted pop numbers — indicating a maturation of the Unicorns sound rather than an abandonment of it.
The album as a whole is marked by a sense of discovery, the feeling that you’ve encountered a clandestine island, isolated and intensely private. These musicians don’t need to conform to standards of quality rock; they create them. Islands include calypso elements, a slew of stimulating and often indistinguishable instruments, and even unexpected hip-hop, infusing their tracks with a novelty regrettably unparalleled in music today. The band starts off big with the sweeping opener, “Swans (Life After Death).” Very much the heart of the album, it tells the story of the narrator waking after death only to find himself on an island. Its thematic and aural shifts, from bouncy chants to more passionate pleas, only intensify the song’s beauty. Think Neighborhood #1.
Diamonds and Tambour have produced an album that honors the wonderful, eternal sound of pop. The help they elicit from fellow Canadian innovators Wolf Parade, the Arcade Fire and Belle Orchestra no doubt gives the album more texture and flavor, but this ambitious debut is diverse and sprawling in its own right. They may have been born Unicorns, but their transition to Islands has been seamless. And we’re better off for it.