Day Fifty-Four: Decapitated – Winds of Creation

Earache/Wicked World ■ WICK011LP

Released April 11, 2000

Produced by Piotr Wiwczarek (aka “Peter (VADER)”)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Winds of Creation
  2. Blessed
  3. The First Damned
  4. Way to Salvation
  1. The Eye of Horus
  2. Human’s Dust
  3. Nine Steps
  4. Danse Macabre
  5. Mandatory Suicide

In discussing metal, I typically refer clearly–at some point, anyway–to my first ever “real” metal band, which was Morbid Angel.¹ Indeed, it was their second album, Blessed Are the Sick that really “clicked” with me finally, once I was able to get used to David Vincent’s vocals (and thus, forever after, the “cookie monster” growling that typifies death metal at large). I actually ordered the album direct from their label, Earache, at the time, back when I was still in high school. Coupled with it were a handful of stickers for other bands, like December Wolves and, well, Decapitated. Because I still knew so little about metal, I took those two names as inspiration for further exploration–and, hey, I was an eMusic Unlimited member at the time (when there still was such a thing), which meant their partnership with Earache opened the door for me to try just about anything I felt like that they recommended.

I snagged Winds of Creation readily back then, and found myself pleased (December Wolves did not go over so well, but that’s largely because they were not and are not strictly death metal, which is what I was looking for at that time–in fact, they were triggered-drum-heavy black metal, which was still a very foreign thing to me). I picked up 2002’s Nihility as well, eventually even ordering it on the massive 220g vinyl that I also ordered Slaughter of the Soul on, at the same time. Winds of Creation ended up on one of my “I want to blast this metal” CDs (most of them paired with other albums) I burnt in those days, but Nihility eventually took over for me, largely on the back of the album’s single “Spheres of Madness”–which, let me emphasize, has an absolutely killer main riff. Of course, if you wander around and compare ratings (such as those at the stupendously comprehensive Encyclopædia Metallum²) you will find Winds consistently receives the highest ratings out of all of their albums (and note that The Negation slips significantly after Nihility, and that the last two albums get passable scores at best).
Truth be told, Winds of Creation is a superior album overall. I still have a soft spot for Nihility and will often claim it as favoured personally, but I have to admit that the production, in particular, gives Winds the edge (Nihility is comparatively “dry” in production–intensely so, in fact). It was with this in mind–as well as a personal desire for ownership–that I ended up snagging Winds of Creation only a few weeks back. I’ve been wanting to give the album more spins, simply because it doesn’t have a song that completely breaks up the feel like “Spheres of Madness”, so there’s not as distinct a hook. Throw in the fact that it was actually issued on vinyl (this happened in 2010) and on coloured vinyl at that, and it was a given.
While I’ve never noticed as strong a hook as the riff in “Spheres of Madness”, the opening of Winds of Creation, the title track, is a fantastic opener which doesn’t rely on the studio-based radio fuzz that opens Nihility. Witold “Vitek” Kiełtyka’s drums are absurdly precise, and create a distinct and rigid backing for his older brother Wacław “Vogg” Kiełtyka’s guitar riffs, before he unleashes his frighteningly rapid double-kick, which eventually launches the album into the stratosphere and makes room for the lean, muscular riffs of Vogg to streak up the sides of the song. Wojciech “Sauron” Wąsowicz has a wonderful growl: his vocal rhythms are strange and hard to follow, and masked somewhat by his rather distinct Polish accent (when you can match his words to the written lyrics, you can hear it easily, and it became more clear in Nihility where his voice was more clear in general). The song is pummeling and serves as a fantastic introduction to the band, who had previously recorded only demos, some of which were released on the compilation Polish Assault previously, but otherwise unreleased publicly. The finale of the song returns it all to the breakneck pacing it saw only briefly earlier, and allows Marcin “Martin” Rygiel’s bass to appear for one of the only times it is audible on the record (an unfortunately common truth particular to extreme metal subgenres), that gives the song some very clear punctuation.
“Blessed” almost eases into place after the title track, with the actual playing speed undiminished, but the feel of the tempo seeming to connote a lesser emphasis on it–which does actually make Vogg’s riffs all the more blinding for their solitary choice of speed. Vitek and his brother blurr into a chaotic whirlwind as the first verse is introduced, Sauron’s voice blurring into the low end of the song fantastically. Vogg is given the briefest of spotlights, alone in the left channel, to which Vitek responds with deep thudding finality. After a low-end focus in the second verse portion, Vogg’s riffs seem to flash alongside as if they are the flames licking the sides of a rumbling engine–be they painted or real. There’s a wonderful breakdown of riffs that seem to stretch instead of chugging independently, buoyed by Martin’s matching bassline. Shifting tempos and movements are defined by a variety of riffs and drum beats. The ending speeds the song through a clearly locked snare and then charging riffs. Vogg drops a brilliant solo composed almost entirely of bends, that finally claims to an apex of bends. The way Vitek lays splash, ride, and snare over his rumbling engine of double-kick is something to behold, as if you could see him speeding beyond his bandmates, utterly unaware as they would seemingly need to struggle to ever catch up.
Also given as the name of the compilation of their demo recordings (which also contained a version of the song, as well as numerous others later re-recorded for this album), “The First Damned” washes in like a thickened tide, building from Vogg’s isolated guitar to a full-stereo sound from him and Vitek. The main riff comes along and it’s a long stretch of tremolo picking that gives that wonderful “appearance” of a single strike being held (almost). The pacing is actually reduced in large part for this one–Vitek does not actually drop to simple blast beats, but his beats are less dominated by double-kick then they have been to this point. The second riff is lovely and bendy, seeming to pose itself as a question in response to Sauron’s vocals. The track has the most “normal” solo on the album, in that it is not defined primarily by the “tap” method of playing (wherein the player taps his or her fingers on the strings of the guitar using the picking hand, rather than picking them with plectrum or fingers). It’s a delightful solo, which seems to act as a sudden spike in the established riffing, increasing speed and range, even as it, too, seems a bit “slow” as compared to the rest. The leads are also a bit more melodic in the track, though they give way to another isolated, left-channel riff that acts as herald to the forward rush of the song’s full return. It’s also unusual in its ending, allowing a sustained hold to ring, rather than fading or stopping abruptly.
Somewhat inexplicably, the lyrics to “Way to Salvation” are not printed in my vinyl or CD copy of this album, but that doesn’t reflect on the song itself. A nice balance of hand and foot drumming is marked by a scrabbling of riffs from Vogg. His guitar is practically unleashed as Sauron’s voice enters the track, seeming to splay and rush in all directions. The lead is one of the best full leads on the album, climbing to higher pitches than Vogg normally favours, and being possibly even double-tracked for a semi-harmonized stereo effect that is exaggerated by the guitar track’s absence in one channel prior to this effect. Vitek gets to throw in a fill that shows off his skill without breaking up the song, even as it does bring the song to a slowed tempo as if pulling at the reins–Vitek’s drumming is slowed for what might be the only time on the album, as is Vogg’s solo, which seems to be throwing in the exertion of a very steep climb as it makes its way along, occasionally stopping at a “plateau” for a seeming aside to listeners, sounding just slightly like the “Egyptian” tones of Nile for a moment, but regaining its own spirit, which has the slight pinches and squeals of Azagthoth-style³ soloing hidden in it. A semi-hypnotic, still slowed ending follows from this and is allowed to simply fade out, which seems only appropriate for the turn it has taken.
“The Eye of Horus” follows a similar path to the title track, with Vitek’s drums acting as a very strict skeleton for Vogg’s riffs at open, but filling in tendon and sinew as his double-kicks enter the fray. It’s one of the thrashiest tracks on the album, Sauron struggling to spit out his words in time. The haltingly descending riffs Vogg lays down after the first verse are absolutely fantastic, and hint at the usage a similar one will see later on in “Nine Steps”. There’s a peculiar and spiralling, chunky mid-section that ends each of Sauron’s following lines, seeming to circle itself to avoid tripping, eventually finding its gait and slinking along on the smooth tremolo we heard in “The First Damned”. Vogg’s solo is distorted and strange–perhaps even more Azagthoth-y, for its vague dissonance and experimental nature, though as is true of most, it maintains just a bit more melodicism than Trey’s usual blasts of “lava”. The outro is another fade, but it manages to include some flashes of lead we don’t hear a lot of in a single-guitarist band.
“Human’s Dust” seems to be designed to prove that the band has been holding weapons in reserve–the song drops out of the sky fully formed and thick with riff and drum, but breaks itself apart to a bare bones snare-based interlude that turns it to a near black-metal blastbeat-styled passage. Never ones to make their time signature changes and tempo shifts obvious or clumsy, the song seems to shift and change them more readily and constantly than the entire rest of the album, allowing for a solo that combines elements of all the previous ones–perhaps an apex in style, if not flavour. It bends, taps, squeals, and slides along into airy blasts of tremolo arm modulated gusts. 
Ah, “Nine Steps”. The only rest we’re given before it is the pummeling pounding of Vitek on toms and snare, which lead into a similarly isolated riff from Vogg that is dragged into the maelstrom by Vitek’s slide in on the ride cymbal. The song takes off, Vogg racing over the top of it with his amalgamated lead and rhythm riffing, a few hints of Slayer-esque riffage that are then buried into a more Decapitated-signature sound. There’s a sort of skating riff over an unusual drum beat composed of tight hi-hat rhythmic hissing, which is completely unexpected at this point, yet utterly fitting. But in all of this, the lead is to the best riff on the album: at about two minutes in, the song climbs ever upward and then zooms off, building intense energy that isn’t clearly anticipatory, seemingly resolved by the booming of Vitek’s drums announces the high end tremolo riffing of Vogg. He lays out a stupendously blurred solo that seems to slow the song down to a chugging riff that repeats to only the hiss of ride before the briefest of pauses, hovering on the brink, then leaping off to zig-zag from channel to channel as it descends. The riff is a sudden change in feel and that brilliant moment before it drops down only serves to make the drop that much more delicious, ending the song on its third repetition, quite abruptly.
As is often the case with metal bands, “Dance Macabre” appears at the end, not unlike “The Flames of the End” appearing at the end of Slaughter of the Soul, though this more closely resembles the booming, ominous synthetic inclusions of black metal bands, such as the earliest moments of Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. It functions best as an outro, of course–it would come off strangely, at best, in the middle of the album. It is a nice vent for the heat the album has built to this point though–moody, spooky, like a cult horror soundtrack (hence the association with “The Flames of the End”).
The vinyl includes the previously international-only (don’t ask me which international–maybe their home Polish version lacked it, or Earache’s home UK, or the U.S. version, or maybe none of them–it’s not a genre prone to meticulous record-keeping, to be honest) cover of Slayer’s 1988 South of Heaven track “Mandatory Suicide”. Our Polish boys speed it up only slightly, and give it the more full crunch of death metal–somewhat “thicker” than the mid-high orientation of late 80s metal production and thrash metal in general. Sauron’s voice continues to be an interesting surprise, especially when compared to the already somewhat higher pitches of Tom Araya–nevermind when compared to the booming rumble of our young Polish lad. As “bonus tracks” go with covers–there’s not much to say beyond the quality: it’s a nimble and appropriate cover, that manages to blur their style in with the original, neither laying an overt kind of mutated claim to it, nor merely servicing it.
Decapitated’s biggest claim to fame I have thankfully left out until now: At the time of recording, Sauron was 17 years old, as was Vogg. Martin was 15. And Vogg’s little brother? Vitek had just turned 15 himself. As if that wasn’t “bad” enough, they recorded and released their first–very professionally performed–demo two years earlier.
This is a ridiculously professional, well-played, well-recorded, and well-written album–it can easily stand next to seasoned professionals, and clobber almost any starters. It doesn’t make a big deal out of its technicalities, nor fail to achieve them in the first place. If, indeed, it’s not so complicated as it sounds to my unprofessional ears (though that is one thing I’ve never heard contested about the band, even by the snobs), it’s still well done enough that it sure as hell sounds like it. And that’s an unbelievable strength, especially in a sub-sub-genre like “technical death metal”. And no, I didn’t make that up. It’s occasionally crossed with (indeed, sometimes synonymous with) “brutal death metal”, a designator that generally indicates the unfamiliar should be wary, as much of what I’m still wont to call “wankery” is likely to be present–that is, the masturbatory self-indulgences of proving technical skill. While Decapitated may prove they have exactly that, they don’t do so at the expense of songwriting at any moment on the album.
I may have softened to the idea of “brutal” or “technical” death metal in general–or, perhaps, Decapitated helped it to grow on me in the first place. Certainly, it was because of Sauron’s constant appearances in Immolation shirts that I eventually picked up that incredibly excellent band that occupies the same genre-space–even rendering my favourite “tech-death” album of all: Close to a World Below. They also helped to refine my taste in death metal, to direct me somewhat toward what I would like later, and away from the sinking notion that, in my limited ability to explore (as well as the handful of recommendations I had to receive then), I was stuck with the “gore-porn” lyrics that once defined death metal (I’m not a Cannibal Corpse fan, though I do love the heck out of Carcass). Despite the name, Decapitated effectively never touched on this–their album titles as well as their song titles seem to make that clear, but I’ll state it openly here as well. They’re lyrics that reflect–well, misanthropy and nihilism, perhaps most explicitly stated in the title track from their second album: “Nihility (Anti-Human Manifesto)”–there’s no sense of elitist dismissal of others, so much as full-on, general misanthropy, and blame laid at the feet of an all-too-deserving human race.
I also can’t say enough about Sauron’s voice: it defines much of what I want out of a death metal vocalist, as he sounds somewhat inhuman, but not as if it’s a strain so much as a shift in gears for him. Some vocalists grate, others are ho-hum, but Sauron’s perfect blend–sometimes criticized for this–manages to insinuate itself more completely into the band’s music and function perfectly on that level.
I know, as always, my endorsement of a metal album is meaningless to metal fans and worse to those who hate the genre, but this album receives my highest recommendations all the same. The band wandered into entirely different territory that was hinted at with The Negation and fully realized after Sauron was replaced by Adrian “Covan” Kowanek for Organic Hallucinosis, furthered yet by the exit of all but Vogg for 2011’s Carnival Is Forever. Of course, the interceding years were distinctly unkind to the band: in 2007, a bus accident left then-vocalist Covan in a coma, and killed the 23-year old Vitek. Sadly, this is now the new face of the band’s immediate introductions. Would that we were still just talking about how young they all are.
In any case, if you are willing to look into a full-fledged metal album and its aggression, give this one a spin–if you’re open to the idea, there’s no way it could disappoint.
¹Interestingly, Vogg auditioned to be the second guitarist for Morbid Angel, after Erik Rutan left to take on Hate Eternal full time. Funny, these “full circle” things.
²If you stop and peruse those reviews: welcome to the online metal community. Never will you find more harsh critics determined to convince others of the quality of their taste, and their superiority to almost any offering. Strict personal rules are applied vindictively, and no leeway is given to…anything. I didn’t last long, taste-wise, in such communities. I never do. Still, you will find that, barring the absurdly negative reviews of Nihility, it ends up just below Winds of Creation. Their (adjusted) scores are approximately 86% and 93% respectively, which also lines up with anecdotal experience of opinions. But, seriously, I don’t recommend dealing with the self-important nonsense that bleeds into that community endlessly. It’s tiresome posturing and pissing contests in almost every internet incarnation. When I saw Decapitated live, however, it was the most polite show I’ve ever been to, despite them playing along with Suffocation–unlike the more popular forms of aggressive music, everyone was given space and allowed to go about things in their own way. 
³Trey Azagthoth (aka George Emmanuelle III, no I’m not kidding) is the guitarist for Morbid Angel. He refers to his solos as “lava”, at least with respect to the compilation of them entitled Love of Lava.

Day Fifty-Three: Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs

Barsuk/Atlantic Records ■ BARK 75

Released May 12, 2008

Produced by Chris Walla
Recorded by Chris Walla and Will Markwell
Mixed by Chris Walla (“Long Division” by Alex Newport
Mastered by Roger Seibel

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Bixby Canyon Bridge
  2. I Will Possess Your Heart
  3. No Sunlight
  4. Cath…
  5. Talking Bird
  1. You Can Do Better Than Me
  2. Grapevine Fires
  3. Your New Twin Sized Bed
  4. Long Division
  5. Pity and Fear
  6. The Ice Is Getting Thinner

It has been a long time since I could just drop the titles of tracks in order like this, but that’s always an indicator of how much I like an album–that is, when I was typing up the above information, I only glanced at the inner sleeve to be sure of the actual phrasings (eg, the tense of “The Ice Is Getting Thinner”, which I thought was past tense, as it is at the end of the song), but otherwise just typed them out. Now, on occasion, this really just reflects a lack of memory as to where a side ends, and sometimes just means I can’t put them back in order in my head. But when I can, it means I’ve listened to an album straight through–a lot.

Death Cab for Cutie occupies an interesting spot in the musical world from my own perspective; I’ve seen people called hipsters for liking them, people rejected as hipsters for liking them, people who nudge me in the ribs expecting mutual loathing or eye-rolling, and people afraid to admit to me that they like them. I still can’t quite figure out what the place is, but I’m appreciative that it doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on Gibbard, Walla and crew. The name of the band and the “indie” association kept me away for some years less out of assumptions about what liking them would mean than about my impressions of what taste I had for things deemed “indie” (some years ago, I deliberately delved into some of the biggest bands–Guided by Voices, Pavement, etc–and found myself uninterested, and was not swayed by most examples brought to me personally, either, though my opinion has since changed, including on those specific bands). Still, Narrow Stairs showed up as a promotional copy at my then-employer (Borders again!) and I thought I’d give it a shot. If I recall correctly, someone had actually suggested the single “I Will Possess Your Heart” to me, without my knowing a thing about it, but someone whose recommendations I tend to take pretty seriously (as she is a longtime fan of At the Drive-In, amongst other things).

Around the third minute of that single, I found myself quite in love, and it only grew as the album went on, eventually dominating a lot of my listening for the rest of the year it was released, and even sometime thereafter. When The Open Door, its companion EP, was released, it only got worse–until, eventually, I found my collection (nearly) complete (at time of writing, I effectively lack the Codes and Keys remix album, and not much more, having finally acquired both the The John Byrd EP and The Stability EP). I did eventually discover that “I Will Possess Your Heart” was not that uncharacteristically long for the band as a whole, but still an odd choice as a single in light of that fact about it, as the only two other normal studio tracks in that kind of clearly-beyond-most-singles length are the title track from Transatlanticism and the last also-title track from the aforementioned (and, as a modern EP, often ignored) The Stability EP (for curiosity’s sake, it actually follows a cover of Björk’s “All Is Full of Love”, emphasizing the “We will do what we want” attitude EPs and B-sides often carry).

I was out perusing a used CD store when I decided to check their vinyl out on a whim (used vinyl can be exhausting–which can make it more rewarding, but it’s a bigger dice roll with the sheer volume of re-sold random stuff that is hard to gauge, or is from the glut of popular albums now abandoned simply for format reasons. I saw Narrow Stairs and, while it was a bit higher than I would normally go for a used record, the fact that it was an album I like this much made me snap it up anyway (after a bit of quick phone-based confirmation that I wasn’t just going to be getting ripped off–which I apparently wasn’t).

While the knowledge is not necessary (I started without it!), “Bixby Canyon Bridge” is, perhaps obviously to fans, actually about Ben Gibbard’s attempts to connect with the spirit of Jack Kerouac, for whom he would later collaboratively work out an album’s worth of songs with Jay Farrar (of Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt) titled One Fast Move or I’m Gone, which is based on Big Sur. It’s a good choice for an introduction, as it seemingly wavers into existence, Gibbard’s voice clear as he describes his experience of traveling to the actual Big Sur, referring to it as “the place where your soul had died”, in reference to Kerouac himself. When he finds that nothing is happening, he sings “I curse myself for being surprised/That this didn’t play like it did in my mind”. Throbbing bass, firm, insistent drums, and crunchy monotone guitars announce the shift in topic to Gibbard’s own life: “And I want to know my fate/If I keep up this way”. The song builds to a cluttered drone, vocals blurring into guitars until where one ends and the next begins is unclear. It climbs and clusters into a dissipating wash, and Gibbard’s voice returns: “And then it started getting dark/I trudged back to where the car was parked/No closer to any kind of truth/As I must assume was the case with you.”

I don’t know that there’s any sense in which a single could be “surprising” these days without simply being a refusal to submit to anything, at which point the question arises as to whether the only real goal was to be, well, surprising. Despite that, “I Will Possess Your Heart” still manages a significant degree of surprise. While it was edited down to a much briefer four minutes for radio play, its album version is over eight minutes long, and at first appears to be a very clear instrumental. Nick Harmer keeps a slinky bassline in line over an easy beat from Jason McGerr that increases in confidence ever so subtly as the song continues. Gibbard intermittently drops a somewhat discomforting descending piano line, and Chris Walla’s guitars waft across the track largely on waves of sustained sound, with intermittent new chords. It’s a great groove, but there’s something a little uneasy in it, something a bit off–and it becomes clear when Gibbard’s lyrics come in. Some have tried to argue (rather inexplicably) that a song with words like “There are times when outside your window/I see my reflection as I slowly pass/How I long for this mirrored perspective/When we’ll be lovers, lovers at least”, and “You reject my advances/And desperate pleas/I won’t let you/Let me down/So easily” and somehow believe it could be about anything but unhealthy obsession and selfish desire for another. Of course–we’ve seen it established that songs about uncomfortably attached persons can be quite good (cf. “Every Breath You Take”), so long as they accurately marry that sensibility to a more cheerful and appealing melody. “I Will Posses Your Heart” may be the perfection of this, as it actually manages to sneak in the disturbing elements, mostly through Gibbard’s keys, while not losing the catchy and appealing nature of the whole song.

There are a handful of songs on the album that feel…not quite right to me, despite my love of the whole. “No Sunlight” is the first of these. It feels perhaps too bright–musically, not lyrically–after the darkened corners of “I Will Possess Your Heart”, but it’s actually a furthering of that mistaken, mismatched emotional theme of the album’s entirety. Harmer’s bass is warm and round, McGerr’s drums are steady–upbeat, even, and Walla’s sliding (not slide) guitar lines are catchy and give a nice flavour that always lets me happily hear the song anyway. It’s not a bad song, not even an entirely inappropriate one, it just feels less interconnected as compared to the rest of the album. Gibbard describes a sunny youth that turns to something else: “With every year that came to pass/More clouds appeared/Till the sky went black/And there was no sunlight, no sunlight/And there was no sunlight, no sunlight…anymore” and clarifies the seeming literal nature of the lyrics to this point in the chorus, which is deceptively energetic: “It disappeared at the same speed/The idealistic things I believed/And the optimist died inside of me”. The way he and backing vocals from Harmer and Walla cheerfully sing “No sunlight” is one of those great examples of dark lyrics and catchy music juxtaposed, which basically completes my forgiveness for the song, even if I look far more forward to the track that follows.

I’m not going to pretend I got the literary reference of “Cath…” anymore than I got the Kerouac meaning that lay under “Bixby Canyon Bridge”, but it does help to illuminate Gibbard’s lyrics all the same. “Cath…” could easily be finished out as “…erine Earnshaw”, as in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, though the object of the song seems more to place a segment of that story into the context of reality, and Ben’s reaction to a real-life “Cath” going through a vaguely similar situation. It has one of the best almost-cold opens of the album: a few muted strums set the stage for a dramatic and big, lonely but warm, arcing guitar from Walla which is joined by another guitar (Gibbard) to sort of mumble back to itself afterward, but then freeze at a certain volume and rattle off a few notes. McGerr’s drums really build the song up, determined and firm beats that shift focus readily to maintain the peaks and valleys of the melody, which moves like a speedboat bobbing over its own wake. Ben’s voice is short, sharp–describing “Cath…” in position: “Cath…/She stands/With a well-intentioned man/But she can’t relax/With his hand on the small of her back/As the flash bulbs burst/She holds a smile/Like someone would hold/A crying child”. Already it’s clear what he thinks of Cath: there’s sympathy in his description, even as it is largely just that–a description. In the chorus he references the voices of gossip that will follow this hasty and un-felt marriage, and answers for her with continued sympathy though a continued detachment of omniscent description. The song eases for the moments in which he speaks of the definitive point of her choice–that of marriage vows–Walla’s guitar dainty and delicate as it lifts itself behind Gibbard’s voice. And then he takes the gossips to task, drawing a parallel to his own expressed cause for Cath’s actions: “But if their hearts were dying that fast/They’d’ve done the same as you”, and then he admits his reasons for sympathy, and explains why he cannot criticize or gossip himself: “And I’d’ve done the same as you”.

“Talking Bird” is one of three songs (the others are “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” and “No Sunlight”) released as demos in various places surrounding the album–the other two were on a bonus 7″ with some pressings of the 12″ (not mine, alas), while the demo for this song was actually the last track on the Open Door EP, played by Gibbard alone with a ukulele (!), but appears here in its more complete form. It’s still a very knowingly slight song. A patiently thrumming bassline from Harmer goes on at a pace that somehow avoids to push the song as fast as itself, while McGerr’s heavily spaced drumbeats confirm the pacing. Walla’s guitars pick and strum rather intermittently. Even at their most expansive, occupying largely the bottom end and staying slow. It may be the most fragile song, coaxing a bird (in the literal sense, but referring to a love, of course) to choose a path of its own, admitting “the windows were open the whole time”, but continuing that “it’s all there for you, as long as you choose to stay”.

The brave, cheerful organ and martial drumming that starts “You Can Do Better Than Me” sounds nothing like the title, nor its own subject matter. The keys throughout give it the feeling of a kind of march, though a summer-y one. Gibbard slips in some real lyrical corkers: “I’ve been slipping through the years/And my old clothes don’t fit like/They once did/So they hang like ghosts/Of the people I’ve been.” His voice slides up into falsetto with a kind of nervy energy falsetto often bestows–as if the raw reality of the feelings he’s expressing are hitting home as he finishes thoughts, and sometimes just as if it’s the best way to hold the notes. But the song is raw, and it makes that clear from the opening line: “I’m starting to feel/We stay together out of fear/Of dying alone”. There’s a balance, a mutual “fault” or failure at play, but then he sings that he has “to face the truth/That no one could ever look at me/Like you do/Like I’m something worth/Holding onto”, continuing his confidence and equal ground as he sings, “There’s times I think of leaving/But it’s something I’ll never do”, and the confident march of the song is left with the sustained organ chord that matched his last word, and only a piano follows him through the last lines, vulnerable, sincere, and yet flat with expression of perceived fact: “‘Cause you can do better than me/But I can’t do better than you.”

“Grapevine Fires” is perhaps the first song to describe a standing relationship instead of a desired one, an ending one, or a broken one, though it turns its darkened focus instead to the fires that actually burnt a chunk of California down in 2007. McGerr’s spiky-but-relaxed drum beat fades the song into place, where Ben’s voice and electronic keys keep it cool and sad. Walla and Harmer lay in beautiful, smooth backing vocals to Ben’s distinct voice, with now intermittent guitar but primarily a second set of keys laying out the backing for a song that matches the seemingly eased relationship with a mother of one against the background of both the fires, and the “cemetery on a hill” that they choose to observe the fires from–her daughter “laugh[s] and dance[s] in the field of graves”, and is crystallized as he finally adds: “But I couldn’t think/Of anywhere I would’ve rather been/To watch it all burn away/Burn away”. It may be, tonally, one of the saddest songs on the album, a sort of downbeat, downcast feeling to the guitar and keys themselves, the latter of which is somewhat uncertain in its emphasis.

Probably my favourite track on the album for its sliding guitar hook and its rim-based drumming style, we are now at “Your New Twin Sized Bed”. It’s catchy as all get-out (inexplicably, never a single!) and easy-going, the depressing subject matter perched precariously on a downbeat tune with a certain hopeful element in it, as well as a comfortable feeling to the music itself. As Ben has said, though, it’s a song about “throwing in the towel”, and continues to address the album’s ideas of dissolution and disillusionment in a method that is almost metaphorical, but, in the end, isn’t necessarily: “You look so defeated/Lying there in your new twin sized bed/With a single pillow/Underneath your single head/I guess you decided/That that old queen was more space than you would need/Now it’s the alley behind your apartment with a sign that says ‘free’/And that I hope you have more luck with it than me”. It’s a defeated song, both lyrically and musically, but it is still alive all the same, in both cases, but especially musically–it’s self-rationalization (“But what’s the point of holding on to what never gets used?/Other than a sick desire for self abuse”), but it doesn’t keep the actions from seeming worrisome to an observer. Walla rescues this with his guitar’s hook, which Harmer perfectly counters with a bassline that echoes and rearranges the same feel.

If the album has a climax, it’s definitely “Long Division”. The thumping bassline that rises up alongside a similarly uptempo drumbeat is cut short in its energy by the more relaxed and clear cut notes from Walla’s guitar, Gibbard’s voice similarly at ease, though they all suddenly rush along in a preview of the chorus: “Oh-ho-ho/Once it would start it was harder to tell them apart/Oh-ho-ho”. Gibbard describes first the man in the relationship, ending with a chorus that describes the man’s goal: “Cause he had sworn/Not to be what he’d been before/to be a remain- remain- remain- remainder”. And then he describes the viewpoint of the woman in the same relationship, unaware of his personal oath, and instead hurt as “She said she’d never envisioned/Him the type of person/Capable of such deceit”. And so we shift to a less internal solution: “And they carried on like/Long division/As it was clear with every page/Oh, that they were/Further away/From a solution that would play/Without a remain- remain- remain- remainder…” The sudden bursts of energy in the chorus are infectious and engaging, with the last instance unable to be slowed in its thundering burst through the song, which is channeled into rapid strums of the guitar that run closer and closer together, riding higher and higher up the neck. It charges onward and ever-forward, finally resting on the half-repetitions of the title song’s object before holding and casually clearing out the last of the album’s upbeat energy.

It’s cold, hovering electronics, and light hand-drumming behind sharpened, squared off guitar licks in “Pity and Fear”. Gibbard expresses envy of “the stranger lying next to [him]/Who awakes in the night/And slips out into the predawn light/No words, clean escape/No promises or messes made/And chalks it all up/To mistake, mistake, mistake”. It does shift into an uptempo beat, but with the continued sense of vast distance and coldness, the gaping distance between two people drawn so entirely apart. It builds to a stronger sound as Walla’s guitar takes on distorted chords and McGerr’s drums push harder (these drums played with sticks), until the song builds up to reverberating manipulations of distortion and then–an abrupt end, as the tape, apparently ran out and they appreciated the sound enough to leave it.

“The Ice Is Getting Thinner” takes that cold spaciousness and exaggerates it to the extreme: just enough echo on Ben’s voice to imply a cavernous solitude, and guitars that are, at their loudest, casual, slow, and low-slung, patient and sad. There is a repeating lick of brighter notes faint in the background, but it is lost to steady organ-style keys. Walla’s solo is affected in a fashion similar to Gibbard’s voice, distant, isolated and mournful, strangely flat and off to a side. It all rests on a single note that holds and fades to nothing.

Ben Gibbard has apparently stated that he never wants to go any lower (as in darker) than this album, and it’s not difficult to see why he might draw the line here–this is not a cheerful album. It’s a bit of a shift away from its predecessor (Plans, two years earlier) in its reluctance to stick to a single style or sound, as well as its relentlessly downbeat subject matter: effectively every song is about mismatched emotional “frequencies” and falling out of sync, whether it’s with a lover or the world as a whole, as it is in “Grapevine Fires” or “Bixby Canyon Bridge”. “Your New Twin Sized Bed” may be definitively about “throwing in the towel”, but a lot of the album is about that in other ways as well.

Despite all that, it’s stupendously catchy and just damned good.

I once had someone wander into Borders when I was working and tell me they hadn’t listened to any new music in decades, that they liked the biggies from way back when–the Beatles, the Stones, etc–and they wanted a recommendation. I happened to be in the middle of my love for this album and suggested it–I admit, sometimes I throw things out not being entirely sure how they will come off, as most people have more selective ranges of sound that they appreciate. But this person came back and told me they loved this album. A few other customers gave their approval when I’d throw it on our overhead stereo system when I was spending the night closing–an action quietly justified by the fact that we did continue to carry it for sale, even as I played it an awful lot.

As much as I may like an awful lot of music, I don’t always get anything quite so “stuck” as this, making it a perfect indicator of what it means when I very consciously choose to pick an album up on vinyl or CD following an existing purchase of the other format. That applies to a good sized portion of the non-super-cheap-used vinyl I own, of course, especially those titles which are not “classics”. Once in a while, the idea (or coloured vinyl, or circumstances) will push other titles in without as much force, but this was one that needed no trickery to leap into my hands and onto my shelf. It does actually have a die-cut sleeve (that is, there are windows cut into the outer sleeve, through which the inner sleeve shows–though it’s not a Physical Graffiti effect, or anything), but I didn’t realized that until I opened it and had already decided on acquiring it.

I already noted that their reputation can make this a very hedged bet sort of situation–perhaps my taste drops in your estimation on reading this, perhaps you reconsider a band you previously avoided (as I did). Or, perhaps you nod sagely and wonder what took me so long. Or maybe none of these. Still, I strongly encourage the reluctant to give this album in particular a chance, even if none of their others.

  • Next Up: Decapitated – Winds of Creation

Day Fifty-Two: Dead Man’s Bones – Dead Man’s Bones

ANTI-/Werewolf Heart Records ■ ANTI 87047-1

Released October 6, 2009

Produced by Tim Anderson¹

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Intro
  2. Dead Hearts
  3. In the Room Where You Sleep
  1. Buried in Water
  2. My Body’s a Zombie for You
  3. Pa Pa Power
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Young & Tragic
  2. Paper Ships
  3. Lose Your Soul
  1. Werewolf Heart
  2. Dead Man’s Bones
  3. Flowers Grow Out of My Grave
It’s always a puzzle, how to present this band.

It’s difficult to throw out a description of the band itself and get people to stop long enough to listen–two amateur non-musicians write strange, semi-macabre songs that they sing and play with a children’s choir. A novelty, maybe, or a curiosity–but more likely, it sounds like something you wouldn’t want to listen to.

And there’s that other thing.

It’s kind of like trying to present Brother Ali and skip over the fact that he’s a white albino Muslim rapper. It’s a lame pigeonhole, but it gets people’s attention, and his skills generally hold him up past those facts. That’s the sort of thing that should happen here, as well, but because we aren’t talking about simple, concrete facts that we may even deal with ourselves, it becomes different. But, of course, I can’t properly discuss an album the way I do and constantly write [redacted] for one of the two “founding” members.
So let’s just get this out of the way: the gentleman on the top far right of the cover in the waistcoast is Ryan Gosling. Yes, that Ryan Gosling. Now, we know that actors in bands usually lead to things like hilarious 80s references (I’m looking at you, Willis and Murphy), or embarrassing attempts to use star power to boost a mediocre band (it would be difficult to name all of those), or hobbies and passions unintentionally elevated simply because of that star power–in any case, it tends not to go well. That isn’t the case here, and Ryan generally disappears into the music, utterly separated from his sex symbol actor-y-ness (though you wouldn’t guess it from comments on Dead Man’s Bones videos on YouTube).²

I’m sure it was my long-lived love of Gosling’s acting (a chance happening upon 2001’s The Believer planted his name in my head long before The Notebook really, really broke him) that did direct me toward the group, but I can’t actually be sure. I believe it was in the days I was still wobbling between Facebook and MySpace as means of connecting with people and–especially–bands. I know the first thing I ever saw was a live recording of Ryan and partner-in-crime Zach Shields performing their song “In the Room Where You Sleep” on piano and simple drum set up, backed by their regular co-conspirators, the youthful Silverlake Conservatory of Music Children’s Choir (all dressed for Halloween, though I’m not sure it was even recorded in October). It was a surprise–it didn’t make any (ahem) bones about Gosling’s semi-nascent star power, indeed his face is scarcely visible, though not deliberately hidden either.

This album actually came out on a heavy new release day for me, back in the Borders days. I remember the day quite well, as I was also out shopping for a gift for an important birthday, and listening to the album as I made that trip–though I also had a new Mission of Burma, a new Mountain goats and a new Powerman 5000 album with me as well. (Curiously, this previously-reviewd album and a few others I’ve purchased in the interceding years were also released that day–quite a day, so far as I can tell) I remember being quite pleased with it, though a bit disappointed in the differing sound of the track I knew alone, and quite focused on it and my new favourite track from the album.

It actually starts with a simple intro, the crack of thunder and howl of wind in the distance, a woman’s voice reciting a poem about leaving a dead love, the mention of the afterlife accompanied by those environmental sounds to really establish the tone of the album.

“Dead Hearts” has a mild heartbeat in it, but is shaped largely from haunting “Oooh”s, gently strumming acoustic guitars, and the airy vocals of Zach and Ryan. The heartbeat begins to pound faster and faster, timpanis pounding loudly but intermittently, and establish the one more completely for the album by weaving it into the music. When a glass shatters, and then more follow it, vague screams and distant choral voices that all lead us back to the subdued and insubstantial vocals we started with, I’m left with remembrance of Bob Drake (don’t worry, I think that’s a meaningless association for almost everyone else in the world). The song breaks down and dissipates almost completely, becoming little more than haunted house-like sound effects–it’s a ghoulish, but cheerfully so, kind of sound, and the one that actually defines the album and the group as a whole: it’s not grand guignol-type horror, it’s not quite Universal horror, it’s not even Hammer horror. It’s something like a tongue-in-cheek, knowing-but-sincere version of the German Expressionist horror most exemplified in Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens or Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. It embraces the ghoulish aspects, and perhaps even the “scary bits”, without the 1970s (and later) infusion of gore.³

Modified from its first public incarnation in video form, “In the Room Where You Sleep” is now marked by a move from piano to organ (or at least keyboard mimicking one) for the keys, giving a bit more sting to the chords it is built on. It sounds something akin to the theme from The Munsters–not in terms of its actual melody, but in the campy horror sense. Shields’ drums are simple in both play style and recording (very “live”), though they are quite deliberately “enhanced for stereo”, engaging in a bit of panning left and right. The handclaps further engage the sensibilities of the song, keeping it in the sort of “campfire ghost story” range of horror. Ryan’s vocals are an appropriately campy croon, the kind that you might have expected in previous decades to result in a ridiculous video of him dressed in horror host style with heavy vampire makeup. It’s a simple song, but it charges along courageously, despite the limitations of our two primary bandmates. It has a moody outro of reverberating keys that lay the groundwork for the following track.

“Buried in Water” is all piano at open, ominous and dramatic in that Phantom of the Opera sense (not necessarily Webber’s, mind you, just that same kind of not-focused-on-scary approach), but it eventually becomes just solid chords, still heavily sustained, joined by the voices of the Children’s Choir, singing “Like a lamb to the slaughter/Buried in water”. It feels like the kind of practiced-but-not-a-distinguished-professional playing of a choir director, as ever confident behind the willful but uneven singing of young voices not groomed for professional vocal work. It would not be out of place in a school musical production–which is interesting, as this is actually the feel Ryan and Zach said they were going for in the entire project. When Ryan’s voice enters, it’s that of someone who knows of the town that is “buried in water”–he may be the ghost of a resident, or the one responsible, or just the guide informing us of it, though there’s the strong sense that he has a supernatural and not-entirely-cheerful aspect about him that implies that, if he is the guide, he is the guide responsible, or the undead guide from that town. The kids’ voices are used in a more expansive, normal (unquieted) fashion that lets them function more like a chorus in the background to our solo guide. The most unsure, young, and unsteady voices end the song, as if they are the final voices to be heard from that town.

The title implies it already, but “My Body’s a Zombie for You” is one of the more peculiar songs on the album (which is peculiar enough as an album–let’s be honest here). It lurches like the undead, but it’s tambourine, handclaps, bass, stomps and the semi-novelty inflected vocalizations of “Dum da-dump, ba bum bum bum bum…” And the kids answer with a similarly appropriate “Woah woah-oh…” that tells us this one is going to be a throwback to doo wop, if anything, and so it is. When the piano enters, it’s that steady, high-end hammering that marks midtempo tracks from that time frame and genre, but the voice Ryan uses straddles that and the subject matter at hand, the voice you might expect from a crooning zombie in the 50s–if somehow that seemed like something that might have happened then. Like the humourous tone of that film rendition of “My Boyfriend’s Back” (wherein he was back from the dead) but stuck into the frame and more serious performance of the original song, though a lot more downtempo. The kids just yell their line, which is exactly the title, and no more (or less). It’s all ended with a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, spelling-based chorus (“I’m a Z-O-M, B-I-E–Zombie!”) from the kids–reminiscent of schoolyard chants.

There’s no question or argument: “Pa Pa Power” is my favourite track on this album. It rides a groove the rest of the album isn’t even interested in laying down, and let’s Zach’s voice take the lead. He plays a simple drum beat that comes somewhere near sounding like the album’s fetish for handclaps, but isn’t. A synth and key hook runs throughout the song, primarily an insistent, low-end one but occasionally enhanced by the plinking fall of high-end notes that are light on their feet. The kids are used quite purely as backing vocals, but the song is dominated by the keys more than anything else, though Zach’s vocals have their place, with the rather obscure lyrics: “Burn the streets, burn the cars/Pa pa power. pa pa power…” As in many other instances: if your intention is to ignore the album, make an exception for this track, at least. It’s excellent.

There’s only one track the kids get to sing “solo”: “Young and Tragic”, the track that opens the third side of the record. It sounds like it could be something from one of the 1970s electronic artists at first, all synths oscillating and tonally blended keyboard playing, but there are lupine howls to betray its place on this album. Galloping drums take us into the song proper, but it suddenly drops when we get there, droning, funereal, somewhat bombastic. “I wish that we were magic/So we wouldn’t be so young and tragic”, the kids sing, and it’s like the sun rising warmth of a downer musical ending on a note of hope–acoustic guitars and drums, but returning us to the synthesizers. It slowly fades off, peeling off instruments and softening in general to gentle steel drums.

Returning us to the long abandoned art of the doo wop nonsense syllable, “Paper Ships” has no shame in starting with “Da dooby dum dum, dooby doo wa”, a backing melody of “Oooh” and gentle near-ukulele-pitched guitar.  Zach sings of being a ghost ship, of his love’s graveyard–the only hints as to the subject at hand, otherwise completely lost musically. The song shifts into an upbeat acoustic guitar for the chorus, which is sung by the kids with a full-fledged “Fa la la la la, fa la la la la–a ghost ship on the blue”. Ryan joins him following this, in a return to the shuffling pseudo-uke melodicism of the opening verses and their nonsense. Quavering, camp-horror keys wander around, as does a rather somber and serious cello, both of which are cast off for the outro chorus.

A good solid clippedy-clapping sound defines “Lose Your Soul”, with a rather hand-drum like feel to the rest of the percussion–dry, thin, nearly overpowered by the low-end poundings of piano keys that fill in the gaps to increase the pace without actually changing the tempo. Howling winds and expanding drums, synthesized accordion–it makes room for Ryan’s voice to begin an exceptionally low croon, uninterested in anything but the fact of his claim: “Oh, you’re gonna lose your soul–tonight”, with a lovely upswing on the final syllable. His voice is that of a ghost shrugging–it wobbles and wavers like a ghost’s is thought to, despite the lower-than-expected-for-a-ghost pitch of it. The heavy rhythm of the clapping keeps the song moving, and gives out a floor for the kids to turn in their best chorus, which rumbles along more like kids singing together than directed–feels a bit more natural to them as kids. There’s also a fantastic set of synth keys that are somewhere between clear electronics and woodwinds, used almost purely for texture. The whole thing suddenly turns shambling as it shudders to a stop.

“Werewolf Heart” sounds the most modern at first–pinging piano keys and acoustic guitar, even the addition of bass and drums doesn’t feel like it’s covering any peculiar territory. Apparently the basswork is producer Tim Anderson’s, and it’s the most obvious on the album, with a good deal of swing and professionalism. But when the voices enter? Ah, the first line is: “You’d look nice, in a grave”, and it gives a sort of gothic, macabre feel, despite the complete nonchalance, and the somewhat insubstantial approach to it. A female voice¹ does appear–the same one as in the intro to the album–and recites a few dark lines, and then begins to trade off verses with the two men who originated the project. She ends her appearance with one line: “Cause if the full moon comes/Our love is done/So forever/Towards dawn/We ride”, which signals the song to shift gears entirely: castanets and insistent acoustic chords (the kind often married to castanets) are met with the howls of wolves, screams, creaks, a growing background synthesized moan–both the hunter and the prey rising in the background–clattering, pounding, roaring, swirling–and the song ends.

I’ve always had a semi-silly affection for the semi-silliness of a self-titled song on a self-titled album (see also: Bad Company, et al.), and “Dead Man’s Bones” continues that. “Dig a hoooooole”, Ryan sings, thin, dry drums and muted guitar crunches that are expanded by a climbing bass. “Oh dead man’s bones!” sings the group of men, like a bunch of drunkards in a bar telling the newcomers of a local threat (if you’re thinking An American Werewolf in London, so am I–though this is far more cheerful as a warning, less, “Get out!” more “Oh, let me tell you a story, boys…”). Their voices lose any sense, need of, or desire for tunefulness, becoming very like speaking voices. The song rambles along, with the weird quirk of something like mid-to-latter Tom Waits or extra peculiar Nick Cave arrangements (almost more Birthday Party, perhaps). A woman crying, a sort of wail, delicate piano–and an undersung rumble of thunder bridge the gap between their verses. The lead vocals take on a very Cave-like delivery, before finishing on a mono-syllabic run of increasingly frothing words: “Six. Feet. Deep. Bones bones bones bones!”

There are just crickets and a faint acoustic guitar behind Ryan’s voice–speaking, telling a story of death and undeath (of course!), booming drums, a tambourine, and a sort of low singing-saw enter, with “Oh, oh, oh, woah-woah,” from female voices, establishing this as another doo wop fusion, replete with the short monotone repetition of keys that climbs only after numerous repetitions. “When I think about you oh-oh-oh-oh”, the kids sing almost Buddy Holly-style, and the drums and acoustic fill the song out, ending with the title: “…Flowers Grow Out of My Grave”, which seems to end it but for the sound of a probable studio error of dropped items, laughter and clapping. They fade in a repetition of the kids’ line, but seem to abandon it in favour of sustained synthesizer chords, overwhelming and reverberating which stop abruptly.

As frustrating as it is to try and explain the point of the band to someone while not latching on to the Gosling element, it’s almost more difficult to realize what a lost cause this is–as I’ve mentioned, if you go anywhere it’s almost a given that the focus is going to be on Ryan’s role in the project, and how amazing he is and so on and so forth. All of this may be true, but you never get the impression from interviews that this was his brainchild or anything, moreso that this was a truly collaborative effort between at least the two of them if not everyone that ended up working on the album.

It doesn’t help anything that it occupies a strange and unique place in general, being most closely related in my mind to The Skull Mailbox and Other Horrors that my dad passed me over my affection for the horrific things in fictional media (I guess?), which is one of the many truly random items that floats around my collection of music (and my movies are not too different for similar reasons). It’s quirky, campy, macabre, fun, ghoulish, strange–but really, there’s one word (and it’s one I often cast in a very positive light) that really shapes the joy of the album: sincerity.

Read any interview with the two of them, or any article about the album, and inevitably it comes up that they set out rules to restrict the production, performance, tweaking and other “niceties” of modern recording when they put this together. They are not professional musicians, limited their number of takes, and performed most instrumentation themselves (most places say “all”, but I’m inclined to agree with the listing below that gives roles to the people thanked in the liner notes). It shows, but not in an awful way–it makes things very real, live, and organic, and gives the whole thing an appropriate charm for what it is. And I suppose that’s what it all hinges on: whether you can appreciate the intent behind it, the sense of discovery, experimentation and clear-headed desire that drives a peculiar project right out of the park–but it’s the park they chose, and it’s a bit out of the way, and it’s a little weird, and not many people go there, and isn’t it haunted?

Yes, I think it is.

¹As is often the case for me, I find myself fumbling around for details on a release and getting distracted. Someone, somewhere, put together complete credits for an album that otherwise, honestly, doesn’t mention them. The interior of the gatefold (whether it’s CD or DVD) shows the choir, Zach, and Ryan, with first names only for each. Tim appears (as with the others, labeled only “Tim”), but some of the other people mentioned are thanked in the notes that run around the edge. Others have no record (ahem) of their appearance whatsoever, either in fuzzy profile photo, by name, or any other means. However, the matching of those names, the awareness that Ryan and Zach are both male and the choir is composed of children means I do know some female voice(s) appear in the album, and that they are, thus, otherwise unidentified. I’m not even going to try too hard to sort this out.

²There’s one other actor-infused group that hits on a sort of similar note–not as stylistically out there, but similarly averse to star-attachment, and built on a duo that seems like an honest pairing, rather than a forced grouping, and that would be Ringside. Otherwise, so far as I can recall, “actor turned musician” tends not to turn out as well as “musician turned actor”. Though I do listen to 30 Seconds to Mars as well, and what I’ve seen of Leto suggests he very successfully made the transition to charismatic frontman, rather than heart-throb actor. Maybe it’s indicative of that burbling level of fame he and Gosling both inhabit, or maybe I’m just trying to find patterns where there are none. Again.

³I’m not trying to build a case for some kind of overarching, pretentious cerebral aspect of this (nor encourage the notion that I am delving into some deeply intellectual secret myself), this is just how I actually hear the music. I am a movie fan, as I’ve mentioned in passing, and I am rather big on horror, but should not be mistaken for an expert, much as I shouldn’t in music.

Day Fifty-Two – Needle Scratch: The Two Dollar Pistols with Tift Merritt

Yep Roc Records ■ YEP-2015

Released October 26, 1999
(Vinyl released December 11, 2012)

Produced by Byron Mckay and John Howie, Jr.
Engineered by Byron McKay
Mastered by Tim Harper

Side One: Side Two:
  1. If Only You Were Mine
  2. Just Someone I Used to Know
  3. We Had It All
  4. Suppose Tonight Could Be Our Last
  1. Counting the Hours
  2. (I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again
  3. One Paper Kid

This will mark the second time I’ve fiddled with the alphabet in writing here, but I think my reasons have been solid in their non-arbitrary nature at both times–last time, I was covering an album on its release, and this time, well, I’d just been hoping to see a Two Dollar Pistols vinyl release to put up here anyway, and within days of stating this “aloud” this appeared before me for order, which I proceeded to place immediately (of course!). In and of itself, that would be a bit of a cheat as there are other albums I’ve deliberately looked up to keep my end-of-letter lists short, but this one is a release by someone who has been open and supportive of both of my attempts at writing, including this very blog. That, too, wouldn’t necessarily dictate shifting the order of writing, but the fact that it’s his birthday? That, I can make an exception for.

In my time back at Borders, one of the mangers I worked under was a guy named Gerald, whose name will crop up here and there throughout this particular set of writings (as it often did at my prior blog). He was largely responsible for the musical guests we occasionally had in the store, the curation of our rather extensive local music section, and records himself. As a result, in the early days of my time there, I managed to see Lost in the Trees before they apparently got indie-big (I still have a signed copy of their first EP, which makes reference, as many signatures I have do, to my hat and their appreciation of it–don’t ask me why that happens. It just does.), and scattered other bits from a local scene that has had nationwide fame (or at least heavy regional) at various times over the years.

One of the first bands to tromp across the total-absence-of-a-stage while I was there was, of course, the Two Dollar Pistols. At the time, they were promoting the release of 2007’s Here Tomorrow, Gone Today and my scheduling for the day meant I only ended up catching half the set myself (though I spent a good deal of my lunch break listening to them when I heard them). I picked that album up, blissfully unaware of anything older, newer, or otherwise–I was not yet too deep into my music collecting phase (the difference then to now is admittedly astonishing), and beginning my lengthy movie-focused phase of life.

As time went on, I began to see Pistols vocalist/guitarist John Howie, Jr. in the store regularly just picking things up the way everyone else did–a few CDs here, a few books there, and we spoke a handful of times as time went on. But it was around the time the store was closing that we probably had our first most direct conversation, as I mentioned appreciating his presence and performances in the store, and he responded with what might have been the only sincere and sympathetic comment I heard in all those few frantic weeks. Most wouldn’t even consider the approaching unemployment, while others would act as if it had no relation to their ensuing demands for better discounts (which were nothing new anyway)–but he actually turned it around and thanked us as a store for being good to him.

I last ran into him (in person, at least!) when he was playing with his new band, The Rosewood Bluff, at Schoolkids in Raleigh for Record Store Day last year, not too long before I ended up moving out of the area. We caught up a bit on what had gone on since the store closing (briefly, mind you), and I got to catch the performance they put on that day (which I strongly recommend as an experience, if you have the chance).

It’s an odd thing, really–I grew up riding a bus to school, and on it was unable to avoid the music that played on country radio for most of those years, all of it the middle phase of modern country in the sense it is most commonly employed. It rarely did much for me, though I never forgot the words of a music teacher when I was youngest–almost anything becomes familiar and earwormy after you hear it enough, and a song here or there would appeal, but largely I was not too big on it. As someone who, especially in those years, did not much do exploratory listening, it was all I understood country to be. Sure, my dad had no taste for that sound, but did (and does) have a taste for country all the same–it’s just the kind you’d hear in the decades prior, largely, and in the nascent (eventually growing, now rather large) “alternative country” scene. It was probably dabbling in Lyle Lovett (thanks to my father, as well as the further endorsement of a guy I used to work with who swung more to the Robert Earl Keen side of that former roommate pairing) that opened me up most distinctly to hearing country outside what I understood it to be.

The Two Dollar Pistols were probably what broke me most completely out of that mindset, as I detected none of the glaring exceptions that would come with Lovett (by his third album no less– Lyle Lovett and His Large Band), just something that sounded purely like country. Now, perhaps–perhaps where we have “country-fried rock”, they were “rock-seared country”, but lyrically, musically, tonally–there was no question about where the Two Dollar Pistols came from. Indeed, when I pulled out a copy of You Ruined Everything, I was accused of listening to music that was not “me” but my father’s. Some have learned by now that it’s best not to think one has a handle on my tastes (especially their breadth), but once in a while someone is still surprised to find I like something.

Because most people I know come from similar backgrounds in understanding what “country music” is, or even know the older stuff and automatically run from the twang (to be fair, if you don’t stop and listen, it does leave a mind stuck in the modern precept instead–the recent stuff did, of course, come out of those sounds), I know that, like all of my metal, this is going to be a hard sell for some people I know. Probably a lot of them. That, I suppose, is why the volume of background I include here–to really establish a human being in this (something I always find helpful in grasping a foreign sound), as well as clarify how I came to a place of appreciation that many wouldn’t (indeed, didn’t) expect of me, and so might not otherwise expect of themselves.

The EP (it’s just shy of 25 minutes overall) opens with one of the two songs John wrote with Tift, “If Only You Were Mine”. It’s a deliberately paced track, sawed in on the fiddle of Pistols alum Jon Kemppainen, with a bit of a waltz to the beat’s alternation of Ellen Gray’s bass and guitars (handled in acoustic form by our two vocalists), though it’s remains in 4/4. Howie’s is the first voice we hear, a confident and and fluid baritone, singing lyrics of the oppressive lost-love melodrama that country is most known for (and often fits the bill for Howie’s solo lyrics, as well). Greg Readling of Chatham County Line’s (more locals!) pedal steel wafts across the track, more subdued than the accents of Kemppainen’s more plaintive draws on his fiddle. At the halting chords of the chorus, Merritt’s voice joins John’s for a fantastic duet that balances his low-end rumble to her gentle and classic–in the Emmylou sense–vocals, which she uses fully alongside him as match rather than highlight or shadow. As you might expect, Tift takes on the second verse, but her voice takes on its own timbre and quality, not quite so high as she sings for the chorus’s blend, instead using those heights for emphasis.

Jack Clement’s “Just Someone I Used to Know” follows, driven by Readling’s pedal steel, and it’s more “complete” as a duet, Tift and John singing alongside each other, rendering the brave-faced sadness of un-admitted heartache with just the right tinge of regret and distant remembrance in their voices. John pulls at the pain as if straight from the gut, while Tift’s voice falters ever-so-slightly in its confident expression regularly, as if the proud declaration that she does not tell those looking at the photo of someone she “used to know” about how much that hurts is itself a reminder of the very pain she isn’t admitting. Michael Krause shines on a finger-picked out electric guitar solo that rolls around itself and tumbles downward at its end to make room for a more eased feature of Kemppainen’s fiddle. Maybe it’s having so many performances to draw from–George Jones, for whom John has opened, Emmylou Harris, to whom Tift has been compared, and even the duet from Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton (who had a country-charts hit with it)–or maybe it’s because a cover allows for pure interpretation within a pre-defined space, some combination of the two, or plain old serendipity (maybe synchronicity?), but this might be their best vocals on the release.

An unidentified (but excellent, whoever it is!) harmonica and a sad set of fret-slides from Krause bring us into Donnie Fritts and Troy Seals’s “We Had It All” (perhaps most famously rendered by Waylon Jennings, but recorded by a slew of country stars, much like the prior track), which allows Tift the vocal spotlight, singing sadly of happy memories lost, full of, not regret or hurt so much as accepted blues. John joining for the phrase, “You and me we had it all”, and transitioning the next lines into his voice instead, his voice gentle and controlled but broken by that same loss, yet most confident as he sings, “You were the best thing in my life that I recall”. Their voices stay united after they again name what was lost, both voices reaching up to cry out for what is lost and can’t be regained, but is seen briefly in dreams. Their voices begin to soften and stumble–not in pitch, not in tempo, but in their strength–as they are lost to the remembrance of just how good times were. Krause’s following solo is not blazing, but moves a a greater clip, burning through it’s time with a different kind of fire. Do not miss out on their voices hesitating and indecisive at their last note, unsure whether to be peaceful in memory or sad at present, turning up and down and only briefly meeting.

George Jones’s actual songwriting (co-written by Melba Montgomery) appears in the next track, as Merritt and Howie tackle “Suppose Tonight Would Be Our Last”, a much more uptempo number after the rolling sadness that fills the middle of Side One. The more upbeat fiddle of Kemppainen defines the musical tone, even as the lyrics are not quite so upbeat. John and Tift match Kemppainen in this instead, performing more as musical duet than acting as those expressing the feelings personally–the kind of duet you’d expect to see two country stars turn and look at each other to sing onstage, thoughtful lyrics carrying themselves and unconcerned with the tune that carries them, which is more interested in being cheerful. David Newton’s drumming really shines here–almost brush-like restraint on the snares, and a momentary turn to a near-martial approach at the traded voices of the bridge. Our two vocalists also get a chance to show off their voices less as emotively determined than as instruments.

The second side starts with the second (and last) original the two put together for this release, Krause’s electric introducing us to “Counting the Hours”, which is largely a John Howie, Jr. performance as it starts, Tift mostly using her voice to accent his, which seems appropriate for the song’s construction–“It just seems to get harder to smile”, John sings alone, and the isolation of his voice in an album where it’s usually not alone underlines that difficulty perfectly, which means we’re completely ready for Tift to join him again for the chorus–and take over for the second verse. Unlike on his voice, she remains alone, vocally, for it–and this works because of something to do with how we hear female voices–whether it’s expectation, tradition, or some actual difference in the way we hear pitches, it functions as somewhat fragile, but fully realized in its isolation.

Charley Pride’s hit “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again” (written by Dallas Frazier and A.L. Owens) is the penultimate track on the release, and starts with harmonized guitar and fiddle, both of which disappear for Howie’s voice to ride alone with Gray’s bass and Newton’s drums. Readling weaves pedal steel in intermittently, but it is largely sparse until Tift’s subdued and quiet voice slips in beneath John’s for the song’s title, sounding even more as if she feels truth in “And I’m so afraid of losing you again”, his voice full and soaring through the chorus, while hers has the edge of fear in it, even as she, too, expands hers for those moments. When she takes on the second verse, her voice straddles the line between fragility and power, projecting and broad, but tinged with caution and that same fear in her harmonies. There’s a brilliant moment at the end, as they repeat that title, and it seems that Howie loses his confidence and Merritt regains hers.

The EP closes with a stunner–the Walter Martin Cowart-penned former Emmylou Harris/Willie Nelson duet, “One Paper Kid”. Largely acoustic guitars at a greater volume and fuller sound, Tift sings alone with the wisdom, confidence, and maturity of a life lived and a story told. Readling’s pedal steel is a gilding on the acoustics, John’s voice the supporting low-end to Tift’s dusty, advisory vocals. He bolsters the chorus, as she relents in her own performance to almost allow for a trade in emphasis, though they gradually grow together into a single voice, the song sad in a way that’s not quite that of the lost loves of the earlier ones, so much as one that elicits past memories, rather than describing them, fearing the loss of them, or reveling miserably within them. And then their voice just–hang, drifting off into solitude, rather than isolation or desolation, just a chosen moment away from everyone, not for relief, but out of necessity.

It’s difficult to impress upon anyone not interested in country how good this release is. These are excellent performances all around, but the taste in covers should indicate that already to the familiar, and continue the relative meaningless nature of it all to those who aren’t. I can’t claim to be a close friend of Mr. Howie’s, so I should hope this won’t be taken as any attempt to push for work on some level of extreme bias–I’m proudly open-minded, rather egalitarian in my tastes, but that doesn’t ever reflect a denial of poor quality, except insofar as the subjective stances that often stem from notions about particular kinds of vocal styling or instrumentation.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the three genres that suffer this most often have no time for each other, but can be boiled down to difficulties people experience with those three things? Whether it’s a growl, a twang, or a rhythmic orientation instead of a tonal one–sampling and electronic reproduction, aggression and speed, or distinctive and stylistically inseparable instruments and play-styles, metal, country, and rap inspire the most passionate defense, denials, refusals, and embraces?

I think that there’s a good chance this release could bridge the gap for some, though I know that pedal steel and fiddle can be Pavlovian stimuli for some, as they once were for me. But if you give the record time, sit and listen and find the threads of emotion and performance, particularly in that instrument we are almost all most readily drawn to (as we almost all have experience using our voice in some way, but have not all even touched guitars, drums, basses or othe instruments)–listen to John and Tift, and gather that there’s that sense of emotional gravitas infused with respect for tradition, a bit of a nudge or wink to the lyrical melodrama of country (which I don’t mean as unique–most stars of the past, at the least, also seemed to be aware of the depths and heights they aimed for, and embraced that happily).

Still, all else aside: Happy birthday, John!

Day Fifty-One: Darkest Hour – The Eternal Return

Victory Records ■ VR495-1

Released June 23, 2009

Produced and Mixed by Brian McTernan

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Devolution of the Flesh
  2. Death Worship
  3. The Tides
  4. No God
  5. Bitter
  1. Blessed Infection
  2. Transcendence
  3. A Distorted Utopia
  4. Black Sun
  5. Into the Grey


After a forced hiatus (stemming from borrowed cars and loaner couches), I am in a position again to write here and take up where I left off. It was fortuitous in many ways that this came when it did, as it gives me a chance to try to put into effect some ideas I had for how to go about this process.

Darkest Hour is one of those bands I found myself listening to more by chance than almost anything else. In the midst of my earliest experiences with metal–wherein I was leaping from the then-popular “nu-metal” acts straight into extreme metal of the “death” variety–I was left somewhat rudderless, but still quite fully powered. I turned this way and that, able to listen purely for enjoyment’s sake and nothing else, as I gathered up the sounds that I liked without regard for community reputations, obeisance to or violations of trends or traditions, and without even internal expectations. It was a nice time in this respect–one soured quickly by my first community of musically-oriented folk in the heavier direction. The scattered voices I heard prior were also similarly isolated, and shared that lack of socially inflicted focus.

It was about ten years ago, of course–“The Sadist Nation” had been dropped digitally (before that was actually “a thing” of complete normality), and it perked up my ears. I was still only recently introduced to At the Gates and so the “Swedish sound” was still new to me, and Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation was quite enjoyable. Of course, it was somewhere around the beginnings of political awareness, too, and 2003 was a moment rife with subject matter for a band whose metal sound was the kind fused with the political consciousness of the hardcore scene (hence “metalcore”). It was a lengthy album,¹ and a relentless one–the songs blasted out until the instrumental closer, “Veritas, Aequitas”, which was a 13-minute (!) ‘epic’ (if you can pardon the usage of that word in this day and age) that employed the guitars of Marcus Sunesson of The Crown and Peter Wichers of Soilwork, both Swedish bands in the style the band has employed throughout their career. Indeed, At the Gates’ own Tomas Lindberg and Anders Björler appeared on the album (in “The Sadist Nation” and “Misinformation Age” respectively), and even Slaughter of the Soul producer Fredrik Nordström acted as producer for the album.

I worked my way backward and around the band, eventually snapping up a copy of the label Southern Lord’s reissue of The Mark of the Judas on clear vinyl, mostly on the back of the beautiful “Part 2”, an instrumental, cello-driven piece the band did on that album. The follow-up to it–the album just prior to Hidden Hands–was So Sedated, So Secure, and has always struck me as the most “straightforward” of their albums, containing no notably, obviously exceptional pieces (ie, like “Part 2” and “Veritas, Aequitas”), and a lost thread as the Devin Townsend produced albums that followed (Undoing Ruin and Deliver Us) broke the band even further into melodically-heavy tracks and abandoned the very hefty runtime of Hidden Hands.

When they returned to the hands of producer Brian McTernan (who produced The Mark of the Judas and So Sedated, So Secure previously) for this album, it felt like a leap backward in style–not necessarily backward in the negative way so much as an indication of a return to the riff-oriented, consistently heavy and aggressive style they’d begun to slip away from with Undoing Ruin and Deliver Us. Not a surprise, I suppose–McTernan’s own ties are more into hardcore, and he has also produced a lot of my more recent fascinations, like Snapcase, Cave In, and Piebald.

“Devolution of the Flesh” rides in on wobbling squalls of distortion and pounds in with the ever-consistent and omnipresent drumming of Ryan Parrish, who has always had a style that fills out tracks more completely than a lot of drummers choose to, not so much in the relentless fill style of Mastodon’s Brann Dailor (if you don’t know–Brann notoriously can’t seem to let any beat pass without a fill that modifies it just a bit) as it is just a very fully-formed and performed beat. Mike “Lonestar” Carrigan has taken over lead guitar duties from Kris Norris, but a large portion of the song is based on riffs and forward movement from them. It does have a bit of a pull in a lead  that never quite reaches a solo, and instead feels more like it’s attempting to break away from the riffs. John Henry’s cries of “You’re a plague, you’re a plague/And you feed off the youth but it won’t keep you young”, leave him in the more quasi-personal, but possibly political range they occupied on the last two albums (though one is inclined to belief that prior address of “you war-pig fuck”, for instance, on said prior albums had a specific object in mind). Henry’s voice is fully developed by now, which makes the final closing note that matches his last yell of “You’re a plague” stop the song on a dime, quite authoritatively and juicily.

There’s a favourite guitar trick of the band’s (based on its relative commonality, I’m guessing it’s that of founding rhythm guitarist Mike Schleibaum) in “Death Worship”–an opening guitar that comes in for a moment with the band as a whole but drops to one channel (in this case, the left) and plays off the song’s primary riff with no accompaniment, the sound deliberately thinned to emphasize this and thus underscore the re-introduction of the rest of the band when it ends. When the charging riff and Parrish’s pounding drums come in, the sort of folk likely to say “These songs all sound the same,” are likely to open their mouths–which is really what I mean about the album: it’s a return to consistent kinds of songwriting, not in the sense of uneven quality on previous albums, but in a greater expansion of sonic palette (including the strange, ideologically questionable but largely successful moments that John actually sang, in a sense, on some tracks). The drop to a single channel guitar is employed a few more times in the track, as it allows the riff to be highlighted before it becomes part of the song’s entire sound. It’s a signature move, really. There are still threads of the extreme melodicism that Townsend’s production introduced to the band, with Carrigan’s two-tone see-saw lead that draws the ending half of the song outward most clearly echoing this, even if he was not present for those sessions.

There’s nothing quite like a good latter-day hardcore or death metal wordless roar employed correctly, and “The Tides” makes use of one, Parrish giving just a moment’s reprieve from the aggressive riffing to allow John Henry to open his throat and bellow over the firmly rhythmic riffing that is so indicative of the band’s style. A flurry of tremolo riffing and climbing chords draws clear and very solid lines behind Henry as he does some of his most tempo-defying vocals, pausing between lines, and holding them despite the rapid and clear beat Parrish (as ever) puts behind him. Carrigan gets to drop his first solo–the kind that Norris used to lay into the band’s tracks on previous albums to the joy of many. It’s a full set of tapping waves, and leads into a solo from Schleibaum that more closely resembles the distinctly blues-based approach of 70s heavy metal–bends and high notes, certainly, but more picked strings than tapped ones. One of the best parts is hearing the sneer enter John’s voice as he howls out the final words, echoing his prior chorus ending ones, but taking them further:  “And you fool and you fake/Like it’s all been arranged/And you wax and you waaaaane”–and you think it’s going to go on, but it just ends on that last word, and somehow it makes sense afterward.

I do believe “No God” was released prior to the album as a lead track, and made clear to listeners (me, at least) that the album was going to be riff-heavy again, with the furiously mechanical drumming of Parrish drawing a clear tempo for the song under the strongly defined chords of the introduction, rapid bass kicks turning to a blast beat and Schleibuam and Carrigan cramming as much as they can into each of his beats. The chorus, though–as is often the case with metal, a distinctly irreligious (to put it mildly) tone develops: “Keep waiting, keep waiting for”–and then the song drops, not to a breakdown, but to the booming of defined and clear beats: “NO God to release you/NO God to make you fall to your knees” which a lightning fury of falling fingers brings back to verse. The sudden change in feel, the squealing guitar lines and double-tracked vocals on the first two words seem intended to leave no doubts as to Henry’s meaning, though the song actually marks the appearance of a beautiful and somewhat unexpected solo: the rising wave of flowing tremolo picks that seem to crest like undulations in a surface that remains unbroken, the higher notes curved off to avoid any sense of piercing. While the stick-poking provocation of the song might’ve been at least a partial motivator, it also makes sense as a single track when Schleibaum’s sizzling solo wails its way out and establishes, finally, the band’s sound for the album. When Henry finally starts repeating “There’s no God to bear your burdens/There’s no God/There’s no God/There’s no God/No, it’s all an illusion”, it feels like an antitheistic declaration in anthemic form.

“Bitter” is a blistering blur of a minute and a half, at first seeming it will be a continuance of the threaded melodies in thrash, but it’s beaten into an absolute flurry of aggression after only twenty seconds, the kind of song that screams “mosh pit” to me, even as a non-mosher–it would describe the chaotic swirl of the worst of slam dancers happily and easily, even sliding in the vague atonal squeals of a Kerry King style-lead for a few moments.

“Blessed Infection” has a great opener, pounding down a slowly falling melody, then turning to the brief, near-staccato chords Darkest Hour knows best, though Carrigan infuses them with some clear lead playing. Another strong contender for tracks to lead with, the centerpiece is a pair of closely tied solos that again exhibits the two different playing styles present–but it also leaves room for one of my favourite games in music–is this a typo or a clever indication of how flexible English is? “Contagious and spreading/It’s blessed infection”–is that a deliberate contraction, or a mistaken possessive? Either works–even works in the context of the lines surrounding it.

“Transcendence” is the song that most appealed to me in-and-of itself when it appeared, the chugging rumble of Parrish, Paul Burnette’s bass, and one guitar riffing low is used as backdrop for subtle sparks of guitar that seem to draw arcs instead of lines between the beats, as if they are weaving over and under each of them. That they are done in that almost-immediately-muted riffing style Schleibuam has always favoured only helps the impression that they are trying to sneak in between beats. “It’s a self-made misery/It’s a blatant blasphemy/But all we need is a little transcendence to mend us/But all we have is sedation that numbs all our senses”, Henry comes as close to singing as he ever does on this album–it’s an excellent chorus, not reaching too far outside the bounds established by the instruments, while still rising enough to be phonetically punctuated with emphasis on each monosyllabic word. A subded, watery moment part way through that is hammered back down by clearly spaced instruments gives the whole track a greater balance, too, without, again, losing track of the song itself.

Recalling the relentless anger of Hidden Hands, “A Distorted Utopia” has one of the absolute best riffs on the album–it’s very light on interest in melody as it starts, Ryan’s drums consistent but polyphonic and heavy. But it’s that riff dives below the surface and tugs rapidly at the lower end, rising only slightly to halve its speed and undercut its own height with a firm and definitive set of low notes. It’s the kind of riff that drives metal’s best “heavy” moments–not a completely standard, tired trope, but one that is both familiar and viscerally engaging. Carrigan puts in another of his smoothed out liquid solos that won’t break the surface, and it ends with the scattered, jagged guitars of a momentary breakdown that avoids the archetypal one of modern “hardcore” to remain relevant to the song.

It’s another recall of the consistent tone of So Sedated for “Black Sun”, Parrish drawing a clear and largely “simple” beat that Schleibaum, Carrigan, and Burnette leave inviolate, vines and ivy crawling across it as decorative rather than defiant in their more varied tonalities. The two guitars pair up for a dual lead solo, but keep the actual pitches rather in check, higher than the rest, but sticking within a reasonable range of each other, or at least not making too sudden a jump at any point.

There’s honestly no chance, I think, that Darkest Hour can ever top “Tranquil” from Undoing Ruin as a closer, as it deals with the drums in one of my favourite ever ways–the kind that will inspire the desire to pound out the rhythm alongside it, much like one might feel the desire to punch the air in expression of extreme joy or success. It’s interesting, though, that “Into the Grey” musically straddles “Tranquil” and Hidden Hands closer “Veritas, Aequitas”–it’s a normal length, fully vocal song, but it has the rising tones and pulsing drama of “Veritas”, as well as the alternating aggressive, “normal” passages of “Tranquil”. It has the appropriate sense of final drama to close the album and is utterly appropriate in its placement, the kind that fills a room and spreads across it, drops in a note of menace and threat in its final moments then just hangs and lingers when it suddenly ends.

Darkest Hour, I’ll admit, tripped me up when writing–who amongst those who read this would find either gratification or even perverse confusion in my ownership of so many of their albums? Who would think “Of course”, or “Why in the hell…?” on seeing that, rather than maybe “Oh,” or “I have no idea what that is”? It was, then, somewhat lucky I found myself in a forced hiatus now–how, in particular, was I to touch on this band, one I know will not ring out with the non-metal folks, of whom I know many, or with the metal folk I do know who don’t even have this name bouncing around much in their circles?

It called out for a re-arrangement of my approach to writing about an album–it’s exhausting and frustrating to try to literally describe an album as it happens, and sometimes feels like a lot of effort for an end result of questionable value to any reader, as well as the kind most subject to both “correction” or disagreement in the least helpful of ways–my description, written as factual explanation, failing to coincide with another’s experience does little to elucidate why it is I’m listening in the first place. Certainly, I attempted to weave commentary in as possible, but it made the act one of a kind of dread. Darkest Hour is a comfort to me, in a sense–their albums are all ones I enjoy, and none run off into territory that feels unlike the band, though they mark themselves out as separate quite readily all the same. Ending up finding all of them on vinyl that was not only coloured but coloured differently for each release was truly gratifying.

I remember passing “The Sadist Nation” to a group of hardcore-complainers (that is, complainers about hardcore, not people who were hardcore about complaining) nervously, wondering if it exhibited all of their concerns about the tiresome clichés–though it has a sort of “breakdown”, it passed muster, even as it fell out of favour for being too in keeping with the ever-melodic sounds of Sweden (that it has vocals from Lindberg wouldn’t help that notion). I also remember the worst review I’ve ever read on the perennially internally-inconsistent AllMusicGuide (which has a habit of saying things like “A really great album” and then rating it 2/5–indicating sometimes someone other than the rater is writing): it dismissed Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation on the grounds that John Henry’s death metal-inflected hardcore yelling (it’s very dry, somewhat hoarse, and is closer to an amplification of hardcore styled barks than it is the inhuman growling of death metal) sounds like it does. It was quite useless in this respect–as if someone said, “This Bill Evans album is stupid because I hate pianos.” Well, that’s lovely–someone who has interest in a style or genre that is known for that very instrument could warn the unfamiliar that it sounds as such, then evaluate the material in that context.

It was the only complaint I ever felt was worth sending AllMusic, as it was the most worthless review I could imagine–and a very strange blot on their discography on the site: one and a half stars amidst largely positive reviews that stay at 3.5 and 4 following it (though the reviewer who tackled So Sedated shared my feelings about its rather lackluster songs–similar to my sentiments about the Foo Fighters’ One by One, but that’s something else entirely).

In any case, this is probably not the first album I’d suggest to most people looking into this band–even of the post-Kris Norris (for some reason, vaunted as the only reason the band was ever worth listening to, which I’ve found ever-confusing, as it seemed to only apply on 2/3 of the albums he appeared on) set, of which I’d first suggest the last entry, The Human Romance. They’ve always been a very sincere band, though–not feeling like they are trying too hard to reach metal folks, embrace hardcore, or otherwise be anything they aren’t. John Henry’s early look was very short hair and thick black-rimmed glasses (though he’s now seen without those frames and with long hair)–and they’ve been seen on tape discussing Sex and the City, with fun poked at each other but little judgment. Their appreciation of their Swedish forebears was obvious in sound, but embraced openly with all the choices made for Hidden Hands. The Eternal Return, though, is a bridge backward to link the Townsend-produced albums with the material to follow.

¹I do have it on vinyl now, and I own most of Darkest Hour’s oeuvre on vinyl–it’s the only 2xLP, though Victory did press it with the re-recorded version of “For the Soul of the Saviour” that was on the deluxe edition CD re-release of the album–but that isn’t at all what pushed it over the edge.

Day [Null] – Prior Hiatus

Due to the interruptions of regular life, rendering access to a turntable and free-time (and especially the two together) extremely difficult, I have been unable to proceed with the letter “D”. I appreciate your patience as I work to get past this little interruption, and I am eager to get back to this, and perhaps re-design the exact approach I take to the process. I think it will all be for the best, and hope you keep an eye out, as it should not be long.

My sincere apologies for not keeping up!