Friday, September 24, 2010

maudlin of the Well-Bath

In music, as in all forms of art, there come works that cannot be analyzed or quantified as to why they are as beautiful as they are. Sometimes, even artists are baffled as to why every brushstroke or note is executed to perfection, creating something much greater than the sum of its parts. Similarly, sometimes we as consumers of art are inexplicably drawn in to a work by which we are completely swept away.

As I try to explain why maudlin of the Well's "Bath" is that work to me, I am frustrated by the fact that since I cannot explain why every second of this album moves me in this way, I am powerless to relate it to anyone else. Making the task even more frustrating is the fact that "Bath", like all of Toby Driver's works, is impossible to categorize into a genre. The opener "The Blue Ghost/Shedding Quliphoth" is like a post-rock take on a classic Genesis piece, with its otherworldly atmosphere and climactic song structure. "Bath" then oddly transitions into "They Aren't All Beautiful", which can be summarized basely as "jazz metal". What begins as a meaty death metal song with growled vocals transitions into a heavy version of Steely Dan or some other swing/jazz band.

And from there, "Bath" becomes even more difficult to place. From "Heaven and Weak"s enchantingly gorgeous classical influences, to "The Ferryman"s over the top organ intro, to the charming instrumental interludes, Toby Driver never fails to offer up variety, all the while carefully distributing different sounds so as to never become overbearing. On songwriting prowess alone, "Bath" should be lauded as one of the works of the century simply because it is more successfully eclectic than anything else I have ever heard.

But what makes "Bath" so special is not its amazing variety. Indeed, Driver's ability to transition seamlessly from crushing to frail in "Birth Pains of Astral Projection" would be meaningless if it were a detached showcase of music theory. "Bath"s real strength lies in its deep emotion, its heart-rending beauty, and its strange connection it so easily forges with the listener. Hearing "The Blue Ghost"s ethereal theme reprised by clarinet in "Girl With a Watering Can" and by guitar harmonics in "Geography" hits home in a way I cannot describe. The melancholy melody sung by female vocals in "Girl With a Watering Can" is the very embodiment of immersion, coupled with the distant electric guitar and light keyboards. And "Birth Pains of Astral Projection" is emotionally harrowing every time, with its epic climax in the middle and its glacial calm at the end, made perfect by Toby's frail singing.

In the end, it is impossible to describe how perfect "Bath" really is, right down to the mysteriously forlorn album art. This is true art at its finest, able to tap into the deepest reaches of what drives our human emotions without one mention of a break-up or of death. It's almost disturbing how effortlessly Driver connects with the listener on this album. To ignore it as much of the rest of the internet and blogging community has since its 2001 release would be depriving oneself of one of the finest works of art of the century.

My favorite song of all time:

Birth Pains of Astral Projection

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lights Out Asia-In the Days of Jupiter

Lights Out Asia's 2008 album "Eyes Like Brontide" was a breath of fresh air in the stagnant, dying genre of post-rock. Instead of doing their best to emulate genre monoliths like Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Explosions in the Sky, Lights Out Asia combined light post-rock guitar motifs with gentle electronica and brooding ambiance, creating something entirely their own. But the main strength of "Eyes Like Brontide" was not its originality, but its vibrance and constant grip on the listener's attention, a huge step away from the laborious build-ups and sweeping song structures of their contemporaries. When I heard the early samples of "In the Days of Jupiter", I was concerned that Lights Out Asia would be taking a step too far into the ambient direction, forsaking their interesting qualities for something less accessible. Fortunately, Lights Out Asia have pleasantly surprised me.

While "In the Days of Jupiter" doesn't have the same coherent theme of "Eyes Like Brontide" (Cold War era paranoia and suspicion), it still manages to tie its eleven quietly simmering tracks together by referencing space via song titles and overall sound. The opening suite of the first three songs seems to be about a journey to Europa, the first two entries symbolizing the slow drift through space with the album's new emphasis on piano and the group's trademark electronic ambiance. But it's not until 13 AM that "In the Days of Jupiter" truly begins to show the band's progress from their last effort. What begins as another lonely space song evolves into a constantly changing, brilliant song highlighted by Chris Schafer's distant, heavenly voice and wrapped up beautifully by a tactful post-rock explosion.

From that point on, the album seems to make it more and more apparent that this isn't Benn Jordan's "Pale Blue Dot", with experimental tracks such as "Then I Hope You Like the Desert" with its poppy-sounding vocal anthems, or "Shifting Sands Sink Ship"s glacial string arrangements. Rather than glaze the listener's eyes over with poorly structured ambient build-ups, Lights Out Asia continue to do what sets them apart from other post-rock giants; they keep the listener engaged by adding interesting arrangements, sounds, and hooks with impeccable timing in each of the eleven tracks. A chord change or a fade-in guitar or a piano melody is all the album needs to capture your attention and suck you into its gorgeous soundscapes depicting the peaceful space voyages like the one on the album's cover.

Lights Out Asia is a must-listen for anyone either looking for some very chill music or to those bored with the sparse pickings post-rock has had to offer over the last five years. Either way, I have yet another soundtrack for stargazing or browsing astronomy pictures.

Listen: 13 AM