Seismic-Sound Album Reviews: The Way We Were in 1989, High On Fire and Black Breath.
The Way We Were In 1989 – Floating Islands
(Team Pegasus) Catch them at Columbia City Theater(CD Release) on May 4th.
Last night I was speeding down the road, pressed into the backseat of a light blue 1985 Toyota Camry when I realized it was all a dream. The fabric interior matched the grey sky. The only color outside was tall grass lining the desolate road. What gave the dream away were the immaculately dressed Asian gangsters in the car. The driver looked over his shoulder from the front seat. He asked if I remembered the way. I leaned on the window, watching the raindrops racing across cold glass, and decided not to wake up because I wanted to see where we were going.
Two tracks into the beautifully haunting dreamscape of the “Floating Islands” EP, I was fascinated to see where The Way We Were In 1989’s Kelly Dale (Daniel G. Harmann & The Trouble Starts, Strong Like Woman) and Joyell Dunay (Tart) were taking me.
Floating Islands is a mesmerizing artistic vision, a six track slow build with dark velvet skin and the brooding heart of a film score. New Wave, folk, electro-pop, and house beats snake in and out, twisting together until seams are no longer visible. The result is music that does more to meld genre than bend it.
The cinematic side of TWWWI’89 blends avant-garde visions of David Lynch with the commercial sensibility of David Fincher. The gradual reveal and unorthodox structure are as compelling as the impressive gamut of delicious hooks. Listening to “Floating Islands” recalls the quiet, brooding confidence of Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 triumph, “Drive”, whose Europop inspired retro-electronic soundtrack was as important to the success of the film as its stunning visuals.
As the name suggests, “Floating Islands” is permeated by themes of ghostly isolation. Opening tracks lure listeners upriver into a digitally laced ‘Heart of Darkness’. Spare prose lyrics sift through introspective ash in a nuclear winter of nostalgia cut from a Cormac McCarthy novel. This is heavy content but the presentation is never heavy handed.
TWWWI’89 is at their best mining beauty from melodrama. Dale and Dunay voice aching characters whose harmonies become dissonant echoes reverberating through an emotional apocalypse. Conventional moments are fleeting, teased but never trusted. Upbeat melodies shimmer with optimism before yielding to house beats that throb like a tell-tale heart.
Any inspiration Floating Islands draws from Sydney Pollack’s 1973 blockbuster “The Way We Were” has been wholly re-imagined. Picture the bodice-clad apparition of Barbara Streisand on an ill fated rendezvous with Robert Redford in the dark confines of a purgatory-perched Parisian bordello. Whatever comes next is a dream within a dream…and I want to see where it goes.
High On Fire – De Vermis Mysteriis
Every now and then, you hear a record that sort of helps you separate the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, the mighty amongst the meek. You get the idea. In fact, you can shove your pumped up kicks right up your ass. I got your Gotye right fucking HERE, pal. Simply put, people who listen to records like High On Fire’s face melting “De Vermis Mysteriis” are a different breed – part cockroach, part glutton, and 100% metal. Warriors. Survivors. 2012 finds High On Fire in a decidedly more whiplash-inducing mood than 2010’s stellar “Snakes For The Divine.” In fact, the band’s last offering is downright poppy by comparison – by degrees, pick your poison, would you rather be drawn and quartered or decapitated? “De Vermis Mysteriis” (Mysteries of the Worm) isn’t easy listening – Matt Pike and company have concocted a more dense, obtuse record here. Both musically and lyrically, it’s initially far less accessible, as great records often are. It’s clear there’s been more attention paid to every haunting detail – a dense underbed of swirling, ghostly distortion is pervasive, and Pike’s vocals are a desperate howl, lower in the mix and blending with the unsettling chaos.The album’s first three tracks are absolutely devastating – ‘Serums of Liao,’ ‘Bloody Knuckles’ and ‘Fertile Green’ display High On Fire’s relentless, breathless tenacity and are where it seems they’re drawing a line in the sand – “you’re either with us or you’re against us.” (affirmative, check) Blistering slabs of thrash metal, tempered by accelerated Sabbath riffs and evil leads, all driven home by a mammoth rhythm section and doom/dirge bells and whistles — this shit is state of the art. Pike’s lyrical mysticism is also on display – weirder and more stoner Tolkien meets Cthulhu than ever. If you’re into time travel, alchemy, or, in the case of “Fertile Green”, appreciate a sort of origin story of the kind bud, well, ‘Dopesmoker’ fans rejoice.
“Plant the seed, growing breed, within the turning weed, manifest oracles light
Harvest moon, Winter chills, strengthening breed that kills, fertile female gives sight
Sacrifice of males undone, slays to waste, what’s been called unsung
Manifestia, green girl gives the way to follow, growing hollow. Smoke weed!”
“De Vermis Mysteriis” isn’t a one-trick pony, either – the anthemic, plodding thunder of “Madness of an Architect” is an album highlight, showcasing a little more restraint from jackhammer drummer Des Kensel (for my money, one of rock’s finest players) and bassist Jeff Matz. Album closer “Warhorn” finds Pike at his most vulnerable – he sounds like a soldier bleeding out on the battlefield, short a limb or two – and also provides the best dynamic on the record, as the mounting chorus echoes: “Leading the charge, running them through, soldiers death be true.” It’s a dense, tangled, intense work, and one of the finest of the band’s career. It’s not for the candy-assed, the soft, or the pretty. If your kicks are pumped up, look elsewhere.
On their sophomore Southern Lord release, “Sentenced to Life,” you get the feeling that Black Breath are just scratching the surface – laying the promising groundwork for a legacy of brutality. This could be one of those records you listen to in 10 years and say “The new one is killer, but rememeber ‘Sentenced to Life?’” It’s a testament to the band’s punishing hybrid of black metal, thrash and punk that I’d even suggest they’ll exist in 10 years – but these local (by way of Bellingham) heavyweights seem to shred with such ease, you can’t help but wonder what’s next.What separates Black Breath from a lot of similar sounding bands (think modern takes on Entombed, Agnostic Front) is that they’re not afraid to add just a touch of butt-rock to the proceedings. They’ll be mid-way through a 3-minute hard charger like album opener “Feast Of The Damned” and then drop in a drums-and-vocals only moment – “My flesh! My blood! You’re dead! Feast of the damned!” and you can almost see vocalist Nate McAdams clapping his hands over his head and a fist-pumping legion destroying public property in the pit. Not only does “Sentenced to Life” totally slay, it’s a goddamned good time. There’s enough chuggah here to satisfy rock and roll fans, and enough off-the-line speed and aggression to give death metal and hardcore fans their fix.If it all feels a little bit retro – the leather-gloved fist clutching a sledgehammer shattering glass on the album cover, and song titles like “Home Of The Grave,” “Of Flesh” and “Endless Corpse” – it’s clearly intentional. This is a band that’s paying respects to their heroes, with a fresh take on heavy that’s rife with sturdy chops, ample menace, and balls of steel. If there’s a knock on ‘Sentenced to Life’ it’s that it’s so true to itself, that you might like to hear a little variation on the theme. That’s probably where this band is headed, and one day we might actually miss something as singular and focused as this record. Here’s to a bright future in a black, black world.