By The Staff
If You're Reading This It's Too Late
I moved to Guelph in the fall of 2012. In case you’re not familiar with the geography of southwestern Ontario, Guelph is about 3 hours northeast of Detroit, and half that distance from Niagara Falls. Guelph is a good town for music: home to the Constantines, Noah23, and J’aime Tambeur of the Unicorns and Islands, and host to a world-famous jazz festival and a couple of somewhat less famous indie rock festivals. With a population of just over 100,000 people, it’s done about as well culturally as a little Canadian town could ever hope.
When I tell people who don’t live in Canada I live in Canada, however, I don’t tell them I live in Guelph because no one has ever heard of Guelph (and how do you spell that, anyway?). Where I live is “Outside Toronto,” which is a metaphysically dubious locale in any number of ways. Living in the shadow of Canada’s largest city means that your own town’s existence is defined by proximity, by a relative degree of being not-Toronto. And this status is threatened, in much the same way that someone who isn’t on Facebook yet is perpetually at risk of joining Facebook. For Toronto is hungry. In early 2013, every available source trumpeted the news that Toronto had officially become the fourth-most populous city in North America, behind New York, Los Angeles, and the paradise of #1, Mexico City. Never mind that this statistic is largely the result of a brazen act of amalgamation enacted in the late 1990s against the will of an overwhelming majority of voters. Never mind that districts like Etobicoke and Scarborough continue to use their old names in official correspondence. The omnivorous behemoth that is “Toronto” exists only as it grows.
I can’t think of a better way to represent Drake’s ascendency than to say that in terms of appetite, ego, and indomitable proliferation, Drake is Toronto and Toronto is Drake. I didn’t much like Toronto when I first visited in 2012, to attend a party hosted by none other than CMG alumnus and Drake devotee Calum Marsh. Truth to tell, I hated it. It just seemed too widescreen; too self-consciously stylized, without really having its own distinct style; too smug; too obvious. I’d take the train in for a good beat now and then, but on the whole I went way too far out of my way to talk shit, convincing no one of anything except the depth of my own ressentiment.
I became a good deal more comfortable with Toronto in early 2015, when work forced me to navigate downtown for a series of training weekends. And when If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late dropped in February, it just annihilated me. While I don’t think the city changed much in the last few years, Drake has transformed into a much darker and weirder rapper since Nothing Was The Same (2013). The content is the same shit as always: everything that Chet said in his review about Drake’s egoism and Cartesian solipsism remains completely true. But for whatever reason, I find it easier to accept my own not-Drake-ness after a few years in Toronto’s formidable shadow. See, I don’t got a lot of enemies; I don’t have 10 bands, let alone 10 dollars; I haven’t met the next Madonna. I am, all things considered, unlikely to become a motherfucking legend. But Drake does, and has, and probably will. If he keeps sounding this good, he’s earned it all. I don’t need to live in this dream of Drake’s, this dream that is Drake—but it’s pretty dope to drop in once in a while. The beats are out of this world.
Love Letters in the Age of Steam
My favorite album of the year hasn’t gotten even 1% of the attention it deserves. And fair enough: there’s just not a lot of music writing on the internet these days, with nary a music writer to be found in spitting distance of the latest tweet care of your favorite corporate blog’s social media manager. (That really is my recommended method of locating a music writer on Twitter: spit at them.)
I’m joking, don’t anyone spit on anything. I’m having fun. Turns out you can still do that in music writing in 2015. Another shocker: you’re still allowed to have fun playing rock music, and you can even write songs that involve such controversial techniques as: “humor,” “being kind of rude, actually,” and “spending time honing your songcraft for decades rather than researching a top publicist for three weeks and calling the Monster Energy Drink Music Consortium to sponsor your limited-edition picture disc EP.” Andrew Falkous, of Mclusky and Future of the Left, does all of these things at once (!) on Love Letters in the Age of Steam, his second album as the one-man band Christian Fitness. The songs here are loud, very loud, extremely loud, a bit quieter, surprisingly soothing, and extraordinarily loud, though not necessarily in that order. They’re also simultaneously the catchiest guitar songs of the year and the ones most likely to result in my running through a brick wall and leaving behind only a Corey Beasley-shaped hole (shudder) and a cloud of cartoon dust.
Here is a partial list of things from which Falkous takes the piss, possibly: social media warriors; himself; trigger warnings; post-modern theater; the concept of ever truly empathizing with another human’s ineluctably private grief; you. That he manages to do this while being genuinely funny and poignant, and with milk-curdling dissonance juxtaposed with melodies, the two layered upon one another as if in a rotten sulphuric cake—that’s evidence of a singular talent, a once-in-a-generation type thing, a why-the-fuck-would-you-ignore-this-album kind of thing, though I’m not necessarily directing that last bit at you, unless you happen to be the editorial director of a major music publication, which you are almost assuredly not, considering you’ve gotten this far into the review (i.e., past my byline).
Falkous doesn’t play the game. You know the one, the kiss-ass humancentipede.tumblr.com game, more commonly referred to as “an artist seeking due attention from the music writing industrial complex.” He makes his fucking rock music, and he releases it (in this case, on his own, virtually by himself) into a world that deserves it not. His resolute dedication to all things impolitic offers the only reasonable explanation, in my mind (which, having spent several years on Twitter, has admittedly depreciated in capacity by a factor of roughly 1,000), why a record as vice-tight as Love Letters in the Age of Steam could go virtually unremarked upon by the music press at large.
It’s true, I might be overreacting. Fine. It’s just a crime, is all, and I want people to go to jail. Jail where they can only listen to Fleet Foxes on repeat, forever, and can only eat food cooked for them by the members of Fleet Foxes, which I assume will affect extraordinary regularity when it comes to bowel health, but will provide not so much as a semblance of joy. Falkous, and justice, prevails.
What I’m saying is, did Linkin Park make this album, and if so, was it funded by the CIA? I’m just suggesting that HEALTH’s Death Magic is actually the result of a top-secret CIA-FBI-NSA-FAA project to create a band of genetically superior super soldiers in the form of Linkin Park But Good.
1. Find the scraps of talent in Linkin Park (the notion of a godless pop-metal-emo amalgam fronted a dude who could maybe sing, possibly)
2. Strip those scraps of toxic nu-metal residue (that fucking rapper)
3. Inject ready-made 2015 ingredients (M83, and also hard drugs) right into the bloodstream
The result? An album that tries to be hard and consistently fails, but fails upwardly, arriving at a sort of uncanny valley between guilty pleasure and holy-shit-I-need-to-see-this-live. When HEALTH embraces pop (“L.A. LOOKS,” “LIFE”), they reach a certain nirvana, the perfect soundtrack to an MTV series about twenty-somethings hurting each other and doing drugs and looking into the middle distance for minutes at a time (or, you know, Girls), a point where the whining vocals and the near-parodic despair of the lyrics somehow cause the brain’s neural network to misfire, creating pure bliss out of some Los-Angeles-navel-gazing, black-hoodie-in-August bullshit.
Your mom hates this music, and your dad is definitely stomping on the floor above your bedroom to get you to turn it down, but secretly they’re just happy you’re not listening to your older brother’s copy of Antichrist Superstar (1996). This music signifies “dark” in the same way a night light signifies “dark.” It’s music for teething.
You know, like Linkin Park. But good.
For a believer, hatred provides a lifelong challenge. Yes, we’re talking about a believer of God here, the Christian God, the one who demands total self-effacement of his followers while also demanding total moral fortitude in the face of the world’s unspeakable evils. The “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” God. Hate, of course, is a central, foundational emotion in the human experience—we hate more perfectly than we love by a factor of, oh, one thousand million. But for the believer, this is not an option. If you feel hate, you must change it. By an act of will? By asking for Christ to intercede? You must love through forgiving those you hate, through seeing them as your absolute moral equals. No better, no worse.
But surely, we think, some people are worthy of hate? Can’t hate, properly harnessed, be our own cleansing fire, a righteous weapon to scorch the earth of its evil overgrowth, to burn away the forces of oppression and violence and nihilism? What loving God would deny us that?
Mackenzie Scott, 24, grew up with that God, raised in the deeply pious Baptist tradition of the American South, in Georgia. Sprinter, her second album as Torres, largely concerns itself with her attempts to reckon with the Baptists’ God: with his seeming capriciousness, his unyielding silence, his role in the evils inflicted on her in her young life—and, perhaps more than any of these other struggles, with what he demands she do with the hate in her heart.
Spoiler: she finds no easy answers, no coastal elites’ smug dismissal of the notion of faith, no full embrace of something as conveniently nebulous as “secular humanism” or as storybook-pat as “your real faith should rest in yourself, baby.” By the record’s end, as in its first moments, Scott seems frightened, wounded, lonely. Hateful. Her questions remain. But her strength—and this is an album of strength, of personal resilience, of an evolving and often obstinate faith—lies in the searching.
Sprinter begins, on “Strange Hellos,” with hushed chords and a whisper. “Heather, I’m sorry that your mother, diseased in the brain,” Scott sings, “cannot recall your name.” It begins, then, with a gesture of love, a form of implicit prayer in its empathy for another’s pain. But these are the next lines: “Heather, I dreamt that I forgave / But that only comes in waves: / I hate you all the same.” This opening couplet typifies the contradictions at the heart of Christian life. A friend suffers hellishly; she, yearns—even dreams—to forgive past slights that prohibit her from loving this friend more purely, but can’t make that forgiveness stick. No, the hatred remains. Still, later Scott snarls, “Done with you, I deflate / I love you all the same.” She spits this line with much more venom than when she professed her hate for this same person moments ago, and her band—tightly wound, providing no-frills muscle to the slow build of her smoldering guitar work—in turn amps up its own aggression. By the time Scott screams the final line—“I hope you find what you’re looking for”—in a voice flecked with spit, the message is clear. The love she feels here hurts as much as the hate, and they exist together, in a pained embrace, despite her efforts to settle on just one.
Of course, ambivalence regarding love and hate isn’t a sensation unique to people raised in an evangelical community. It’s not until the next song, a jawdropping knockout and the album’s best work, that Scott explicitly connects her struggles to her faith. On “New Skin,” she bellows, in a gripping near-baritone, “Who’s that trying to speak for me? / What kind of love do they claim to be? / A child of God, much like yourself?” This, after she alludes to the trauma of sexual assault, singing, “In Kansas City, I was / Undressed and bested / By an airtight floor.” Again, Scott weighs the promise of God’s love for all of His children against the horrific violation she’s experienced there on the floor in Kansas City.
When the song transforms, midway through, into a half-tempo, headbanging anthem, she hasn’t rejected God, but she hasn’t rejected her own anger, her sense of betrayal at His hands, either. “If you’ve never known the darkness,” she croons, “then you’re the one who fears the most.” She does know the darkness first-hand, and that’s not what frightens her most. For her, If you do not know the darkness / Then you’re the one I fear the most.” It could be that she, like most people who’ve lived through depression or trauma, know it sometimes seems impossible to connect with those who haven’t, as well as the heart-freezing fear that comes with that sense of isolation. Or, she could be rejecting blind faith in God, acknowledging how simple it is to believe in and love a God who has never put you to the test of real pain, and how that faith, compared to her own much more fraught and complex faith, frightens her in its purity. The notion lurks: that her belief doesn’t count quite as much, not when she knows the darkness.
She puts it another way on “Sprinter,” the record’s beautiful centerpiece, telling a story of her Baptist pastor’s arrest for child pornography, an experience so disillusioning it leaves her calling herself “decedent”—dead. Yet still she struggles to keep her faith: “The Baptist in me chose to run / But if there’s still time to choose the sun / I’ll choose the sun.” She knows the darkness. She knows the sun. She knows she has a choice in which she’ll embrace. And it’s that freedom—”freedom to, and freedom from”—that both torments Scott across Sprinter while giving her the strength to survive. She believes in a God of agency, one who gives her the terrible burden of, and chance of liberation within, choice.
By the time she breaks down, begging for solace, in album closer “The Exchange,” she’s revealed to you a woman of impossible strength, found through impossible vulnerability. I’ve only listened to “The Exchange” half a dozen times, though I’ve listened to Sprinter many, many more—it’s too much for me. It, perhaps more than any song I’ve heard in my life, seems to reach into my chest and pull from me my deepest fears, hold them up, and ask me to look at them in the light. I’m working on it. Working on God, the darkness, the light. Mackenzie Scott has given me a gift in her music, a sense of understanding, a sense that even if darkness and light can’t be reconciled, even if “I’m no martyr / I’m just afraid,” I might still be doing the right thing—my best.
Twelve Living Generations
Twelve Living Generations is a document about our frail experience of time (and the strained nature of self and relationship within that frailty), and our place amidst eternity. On some days it is my favorite record of the year. On others, it is simply the one I can’t stop listening to. It and I are sharing our temporalities with each other. Mine is a life that will someday end once its energy can no longer sustain itself. The record’s life is one where the energy is external, it is that of the listener, and at some point there will be no listeners giving it that energy…but I suppose there is always the possibility, so long as the Internet exists in some fashion, that it will be resurrected.
Interestingly, Twelve Living Generations suggests that perhaps its life and the life of the listener are not so different. Its title evokes many things in my mind, but perhaps foremost is the idea of perpetuity and synchronicity—our reality but one simulacrum plane of an entity whose whole is made of endless facets—described in Philip K. Dick’s Valis. “The empire never ended.” Accordingly, on Twelve Living Generations “No One Counts Until They’re Dead.“ Of course, in linear time everything has a beginning, duration, and end. But time, Einstein doth holla, is relative, and in this we acknowledge the possibility of an existence where a generation begets a generation begets a generation and they, outside of their linear dimension, all overlap. All dozen of them and more, ad infinitum. And they’re all alive. And they’re all alive all at once (though “at once” has little meaning in this context) because something is listening to all of them. Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder, the Beholder projects that beauty out into the void. “I Once Saw Life” says the record’s penultimate track, wordlessly. The two sides of Twelve Living Generations are divided by a reading of Psalm 139: 16: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” Have I talked about the drums yet?
I mean, thus far you wouldn’t know that I was talking about music from a guy that started out as a rap producer for the Green Ova collective. And almost all through Side A of this record you’d have no idea, either. The methodology is from that background but L.W. Hodge uses it to apply an industrial/noise palette and stray keyboard chords around Bauhaus vocals. Still, time is stringently kept, felt, propagated by those drums—inventive in their programming, intense in their impact. “Inertia” pendulums alternations, finding vicious force within a metronomic swing. Side A’s songs spray out discord but the remnant rap loops them back in on themselves, concentrating the dissonance into a harmonious account of pain. This isn’t wallowing in the aftermath, it’s the stab of the moment itself. The record seeks our alignment with its moments in its first half because, commonly, what we experience towards each other is our constant non-synchronicity.
On the record’s gorgeous, generous Side B, Hodge takes the New Wave/hip-hop hybrid he hatched in CIA TV (2012) and raises it here for a rumination on how we’ve each been marooned on our own islands “in the stream” (of Time) and where that leaves us all relationally. It is the ache of yearning to connect with some other spirit, and it reaches out lovingly even as culminating in a minor relapse of Side A, “Poverty of the Mind” the record’s stunning dramatic climax and coalescence of all its aesthetic and technique. The track bears the exquisite, excruciating truth that our hope and our despair are inextricable. Born at different times, dying at different times, our individual realities absolutely subjective and relative…we may share the same space-time, but our perception and our fractured finitude equals different timelines (Facebook and otherwise), separated. “Was this God’s plan?” asks Twelve Living Generations on “Ascending Now,” whose closing minutes are perhaps the most beautiful and rapturous finale of any record this year. Death is the Great Equalizer. Death, paradoxically, is Life. “Ascending now / over the trees / up to the sky / into the sun / I’ll see you soon.” The last line repeats and repeats, stops, the music plays on, fades, and you know physically it will end. But, metaphysically, it never has to. It is listened to, forever. Projected light, finding the surface of the void.
Rock music is tired. Don’t take it as evidence for that statement, but this Unison/Harmony feature is probably “the most guitarless CMG end-of ever,” to quote Corey Beasley. And this, one of the few rock records on it, is heavily inspired by a dude who died almost 20 years ago.
As revered as he is, you’d think Jeff Buckley would be more obviously influential on a whole host of bands. Many millennial musicians who still rock neck medallions point to Buckley as their forebear while their music fails to bear witness; perhaps something is too inimitable about what Buckley did, those contemporary rock arrangements built around such a singular voice, a tenor Nephilim with a wicked falsetto. For instance, there’s a lot of music happening in the climax of “So Real,” but it’s all centered on Buckley, his tremulous yell of “Oh, that was so ree-EEEEE-eal” pushing and reaching as it repeats, as if pleading for God to take notice. Violent Mae’s Becky Kessler claims Buckley as a primary influence, and maybe for the first time that anyone has done that, I can hear it. Her voice, too, is striking and unique—not like Buckley’s, per se, but I can call hers cousin to it. Gifted with great range, Kessler’s voice is both smoky and tender, a silver tongue savoring every syllable that escapes the resistance of her pensive lips. And so the songs can be built around that and her distinctive guitar playing, in some kinship to how Buckley’s songs were just a full band’s extensions of him. Kid’s title track holds the most obvious debt, bordering on homage, or at least sounding like it could be a new unearthed Buckley classic, covered by a woman and her drummer/producer friend. Yet it’s in their blood, it seems. Thus, Kessler declares on “In My Ring” that it’s “so real” and you somehow accept that as authentic and earned—yes, even you with pewter Jeff Buckley visage hemp-strung and nestled in your jugular notch. Maybe you’re swayed by that sick guitar modulation at the end.
Some songs, like “Away,” “Flame,” and “Birthday,” trickle like water down a gradual incline: patient yet naturally inexorable in getting where they want to go. They may never start rushing but you know they will accrue more water (in particular, “Flame” becomes a wonderful pool of semi-melodic loops and scuzz). Others, like the opening trio, are ready out the gate but their intention is a steady stride; they want you not to anticipate the finish but to fall into an unblinking gaze at the refined rhythm of their muscles, the intricacy of their sinew, so that when the finish comes you are surprised (and yet not at all) that we’ve won, and the real win was the elation of recognizing something as beautiful, something that you might not have seen if your eyes were too hungry for a thrill, for superficial gratification. And then there’s a song like “Murdered Bird,” which is inexplicably, delightfully, one half jazz-flecked meandering and one half the fucking jam.
It’s the quid pro quo that Kid parlays. It makes a living on its elegant play of contrasts, a gentility made up with a lot of rawness and edge, each lyric reading as both statement and question (which is the posture of wisdom). It’s enthralling. It redefines “soft rock.” Guitars lick lightly at old wounds, scars faded to almost nothing, before churning and barking away at something completely invisible. Floyd Kellog’s drums serve the foundations but also subtly accent and mark the progressions, nudging the growth into bloom. They’re even given moments themselves to unleash, as in the breakdown of “Rob Me Blind” that soars up into something indefinite yet powerful, like monstrous, dark storm clouds at night. All throughout Kid the underpinning of the delivery rolls on constant slight turns of musical phrasing, be it in Kessler’s intuitive vocals or her sly guitar, so that the record’s conventions unravel into, eventually, something a bit less recognizable and less predictable, but still echoing a strong familiarity—for the sake of that familiarity’s intimacy. Letting in tiny bits of the unknown while caressing away thoughts of the impending apocalypse—global, personal, etc.
What I think I know is this: Violent Mae’s Kid is the best rock record this year after FKA Viet Cong’s (formerly) self-titled debut. And, sure, rock music is tired, but Violent Mae appropriate that weariness and find their comfort zone in it, crafting something to chug away gracefully as all our parties fall apart. Buckley perfectly soundtracked that slowing night that’s forgotten the morning. But maybe now we’re actually way past party, maybe we’re all lost in the wilderness, our fire dying. Some rare individuals know exactly how to stoke the embers (i.e. carefully and quietly, with gaze lit and held by the burning past while the future hangs on the brow, casting a shadow over the eyes) to keep the fire going as long as possible. The world is cold, Kid nods, but here there is some warmth, even as the chill sets in. You know the warmth for the chill, and the chill for the warmth. In the contrast is truth, a fully aware and wholehearted accounting for your state, our state, telling us that this music, God…it’s so real.
Frozen Niagra Falls
Dominick Fernow has spent the past half-decade valiantly redefining the aesthetic parameters of his Prurient project. Once solely an outlet for extreme noise, Fernow’s music as Prurient has, in recent years, begun to resemble bastardized approximations of his many side acts, whether that be the sadistic techno produced under the Vatican Shadow moniker or the mechanistic synth-pop from his days as a member of Cold Cave. Still, the resulting records, while solid and uncommonly listenable by comparison, felt at best transitional, and at worst like half-measures, exercises in style rather than substance (and as such were oftentimes epitomized by a single standout track; see “Time’s Arrow,” “Palm Tree Corpse,” and “Through the Window”).
To say that Frozen Niagara Falls is what Fernow has been working toward would be an understatement. If Bermuda Drain (2011) marked a sea change in Fernow’s approach, then the seamless, fully-formed Frozen Niagara Falls is a watershed. Not only do the record’s sixteen tracks and 90-minute runtime offer the purest distillation yet of Fernow’s many interests and personas, but each works in such unexpected harmony with its surroundings and, indeed, in such synchronicity, that the power of any individual moment is granted an accumulating gravitas as the album proceeds across its many sonic crags and cliffs. At once placid, propulsive, and pummeling, the album laces both harsh noise passages (“A Sorrow With a Braid,” “Poinsettia Pills”) and rhythmic manifestos (“Every Relationship Earthrise,” “Lives Torn Apart [NYC]”) with subtle melodic touches, and disarmingly beautiful tracks (“Myth of Building Bridges,” ”Greenpoint”) with swarming digital detritus—not as a contrast in light and dark, silence and cacophony, but as evidence of the intrinsic duality of even the most elemental phenomenon. It’s here, the feeling of dry ice on bare skin, of being trapped just below the surface of the water. Except for the first time in Fernow’s oeuvre, there’s no pain, and no panic––only peace, only “Christ Among the Broken Glass.”
post rock on~~~
Because it is best heard alone, either in a dark room or on headphones while sliding from the back seat of a long car ride into a separate consciousness, I’ve come to think of post-rock on~~~ as “hiding music.” It is music for those solitary moments when the inner Quieter Self demands to be nurtured. The environment it creates is a fractured, jagged relic of something once regal, like ancient ruins overrun by vegetation. In this secret garden, songs have no pronounceable names, but the arrangement of the glyphs that serve as song titles organizes the world loosely into suites. It plays like a whisper, a dream struggling come to life, or a universe beguilingly offering retreat.
Future Stoa (I’m sure there was an “Ltd.” at the end of their name but, like the quality of the tape they fiddle with, it seems to have been lost to the erosion of time) is one of those mercurial vaporwave artists from the dark corners of Bandcamp willfully obscuring themselves in service of the art’s anonymity. The practice makes them, and artists of their Japanese-appropriating ilk, difficult to recommend in conversation, but it does create the illusion that the music sprang from the depths of a mysterious pocket of the internet, rather than a pimpled 20 year-old fiddling with Ableton in his parents’ house. On post-rock on~~~, Future Stoa utilize the mystery to present their hodgepodge of degraded tapes, clipped audio, and wavering tones as an electronic regurgitation of a pastoral lullaby. It features things like a sitar struggling to induce meditation through gravelly reverb, and a piano lick chopped to flutter nervously like a butterfly. One particularly powerful movement features warm, unwieldy chords prone to stopping suddenly and restarting at full-volume, pierced by the coo of a gentle male voice, so sacred it can be nothing but a keyboard setting.
Think of it as computer-generated holy music inelegantly degraded until its soul was rediscovered. post-rock on~~~ touches upon one of the gorgeous conundrums of the age: that any work which attempts to present as earnest and human without directly acknowledging its debt to the technological hellscape is lying, and any work too given to the pristine possibility of computers is emotionally empty. post-rock on~~~ is in a place where the latter idea is overrun with technical flaws. The album’s sounds do not behave like they should, instead creaking and jerking in a spirited, doomed attempt at recreating something immaculate. It’s like an antique music box whose ballerina no longer spins at a consistent speed. This leaves plenty of space for imagination. Something far more… impressive lurks on the periphery of post-rock on~~~, but what makes it such a powerful listen is what remains, something less refined, more common.
Perhaps the obvious dents and stains in what was once a shining exterior make it so conducive to repose. It allows for silent reflection upon myriad imperfections, both in the self and in the world. And it’s the imperfections that need to be obscured for the world to keep spinning as it currently does, as the precise nature of those imperfections is too painful a subject to conjure. So post-rock on~~~ exists as a signifier of a truth, as most good art should, that resists being put into words, but it is there, siting at the tips of fingertips, elusive and tantalizing, and the best you can hope for, if we’re being true, is that when you turn to your neighbor and ask “Do you see that?”, they say, “Yes.”
(P.W. Elverum & Sun)
As I type this, the seasonal cold has finally crept its way into New York City, which means it’s time for Sauna. Were it cold all year long, Sauna would have been my album of 2015. It’s a warm blanket and the smell of a percolating cup of dark roast. It’s a lonely weekend morning spent in sweatpants while sleet batters the windows. It’s Seasonal Affective Disorder, the old friend come in with the cold to spend a few months next to me on this couch, in this room, in snow.
What does it sound like? It sounds like Phil, if you know his stuff, always whispering, whether he’s surrounded by quiet or hell. Sauna marks Phil Elverum’s most fully-realized universe since 2001’s The Glow Pt. 2, which is impressive for someone whose entire oeuvre is comprised of different, hyper-specific atmospheres built from the sounds he creates. It’s all in the details: we’re by the North Sea in “Books,” or kicking stones in “Pumpkin.” We’re rhythmically beating the wall in “(something)” surrounded by rushing cars and heavy fog in “Dragon.” In the title track, the heat comes in the form of a crackling fireplace and a warm synth. In “Spring,” it’s a nightmarish geyser, the synths a towering blaze. These bring me to two specific images every time I listen to Sauna. First: we’re in a cabin in a fog so heavy all there is to see outside is white. Second: we’re still in a single room, watching the narrator of Sauna flutter about like the shutter-speed on the camera was slowed way down, and we’re watching the resulting film at normal speed. I suppose both are pretty terrifying.
It helps (I guess?) that I first found Sauna while struggling with a major depressive episode, so it clicked immediately. I know this to be true of others who love Sauna as much as I do. My favorite description of this record is a friend’s, who told me it reminded her of walking around a campus she hated, listening to this record, and feeling “my mind numbing and freezing, in a good way.” Her description gets to the heart of what Sauna did for me, and what I think it is: a companion, a thing to listen to and hear a world you experience but never see reflected back at you, one where every detail, every interaction with people you know, every piece of dogshit on the sidewalk, every pumpkin cracked open and caught with “its emptiness loose,” has been rendered strange and foreign, like the Earth changed its language.
Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld
Never Were the Way She Was
Let’s rescue a cliché: whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—if only a temporary rush of adrenaline before fading into that good night. Accept that all our myths are like that of Samson’s, stripped bare and howling for catharsis; accept the archetype that can reach out through the bounds of a wordless fury like this album can, and be as clear as this album’s cover is, and be a tree worn to its bones, indestructible if only for a moment of respite. Accept that whatever doesn’t kill you completely will leave you with a triumphant Swan Song.
But this isn’t a solo show, like previous feats of Samsonite strength that saxophonist Colin Stetson has displayed in the past. His union with violinist Sarah Neufeld is the accidental poetry of two flailing bodies grasping at each other. Not that this is the free-form collision of a typical avant-garde duo; instead, it’s the push and pull of two lovers, the perfection that comes from inhabiting another person’s flaws. Never Were the Way She Was is, in other words, a staggeringly empathetic record: the two instruments weave in and out of each other’s orbits, echo each other, both acknowledging a distance and separation—and refusing to succumb to it.
For those familiar with Stetson’s playing, all the usual tricks are here: the clacking of percussion, muted, strangled cries squeezing through the reed, circular melodies seeming to go backwards and forwards at the same time. But here they’re centered around the equally minimalist physicality of Neufeld’s bowing, which sometimes seems enveloped by the saxophonist’s layers. Perhaps that’s what’s meant by the “dark hug” on “With the Dark Hug of Time.” Easily the album’s most visceral track, Stetson playing Samson playing an elephant trumpeting in protest as it’s tied down and caged. Neufeld scrapes her bow against the metal bars, helpless to free it, simply calming it enough to keep it from destroying itself.
Although it would be a mistake to imagine proscribed roles in this dance: more rhythmic tracks like “In the Vespers” and “The Rest of Us” find the two instruments constantly swapping places, from the foreground to the background, and back again—like twin figures across the sun-drenched desert, blurring into each other, converging and dividing again. These two tracks remind me, in their constant pivots of minimal-maximalism, of avant-prog pillars like Magma or Ruins, if you can imagine the super-human strength of such groups making their final gasp in the throes of Kryptonite poisoning.
So rarely does one hear technique and raw emotion so thoroughly intertwined. And this is technique: tangible ideas of breathing and bowing, of harmonics and phasing, of the relation between the body and the instrument, are all over this album. It’s like a thesis on screaming—or a diagram of a pair of lungs, trapping a suffocating victim, or of emotion as unblinking eyes staring straight into an abyss. “Objectively beautiful,” you might say. And in this, it opens itself up to the world. If it weeps, it weeps not for itself, in its furious, dying breath—which never dies, but just plays out the dying moment over and over again—it weeps so that is may grow stronger.