It’s no new thing to point out that we’re living through a time of great upheaval.
Not just here in Trumpland, either, but all over the world. Fear is taking root, uncertainty is in the air, the earth is moving beneath our feet. And I think we’ve been living in this state for so long now that it’s becoming background. The tectonic plates shift and we barely notice anymore, but the atmosphere of dread and anxiety just hangs over us all the time. We could be plunged further into hell at any moment, and I think we’re all becoming inured to that feeling.
So I’m not surprised that this atmosphere is seeping into the music that is coming out now. I don’t even mean music that is specifically about the world situation, or music that is trying to capture the age of Trump. I’m talking about the overall tone of a lot of the music I’m hearing these days. It’s fractured and broken and unsteady. It’s music that is raising bulwarks against a storm.
And I’m not sure I’m even going to be able to describe what I mean. I’m going to start with an album that is responding to a specific tragedy, just to see if I can isolate the tone and feel I’m talking about. That album is the difficult yet beautiful one from Polish band Riverside. It’s called Wasteland, and it’s their first album since the tragic death of their guitar player, Piotr Grudzinski, in 2016. To say Grudzinski was a big part of their sound is to understate by miles – his lead playing characterized much of this band’s work, which lives in that no-man’s-land between prog, metal and melodic rock.
Riverside’s music has always had a bleak edge to it, but Wasteland is something else. The band has continued on as a trio, with leader Mariusz Duda taking on the guitar parts, and while the album still sounds full and rich, it also feels diminished somehow, like a recent amputee. The songs are unfailingly gray, like the cover art, and speak of dark days, waiting for a sunrise that never comes. This is an album that begins with Duda singing these lines a cappella: “What if it’s not meant to be, what if someone has made a mistake, what we’ve become, there’s no turning back, maybe it’s time to say that out loud.” And it starts like it means to go on.
And it’s stunning stuff. The old Riverside crunch is still there – see the opening of “Acid Rain” and the riff of “Vale of Tears” – but even the loudest songs dissolve into quieter acoustic passages. The chorus of “Vale of Tears” (“I am wading through the desert to the promised land you burned to the ground”) is haunting, Duda sounding like he truly is making the pilgrimage he describes. “Guardian Angel” is quiet and delicate, while “Lament” balances its drive with a spectral violin. Even the nine-minute instrumental “The Struggle for Survival” builds slowly, interlocking its pieces carefully. (It’s the one track on which Duda gets to cut loose on guitar, too.)
Wasteland could not have been an easy record to make. It captures this band crawling back from their lowest point, dealing with their pain and grief in song, and in the process making one of the most darkly beautiful sets of songs they have ever given us. There isn’t much hope here, even in closing piano lullaby “The Night Before,” and in that it fits the mood of the world we’re in very well.
But that isn’t specifically what I’m talking about. I mean, it is, but the fact that Wasteland so aptly fits both the personal tragedy it is about and the worldwide sense of despair complicates it. So here’s an example that is far removed from that one: The Joy Formidable’s fourth record, AAARTH. I adore this band. They came screaming onto the scene in 2008, and solidified their attack with their 2011 debut album, The Big Roar. I have often said that early Joy Formidable is what the Smashing Pumpkins might have sounded like if they let D’Arcy sing – gigantic guitars creating a massive wall of distortion, Ritzy Bryan’s voice floating over the top. (But don’t let her dulcet tones fool you. Bryan’s a badass – she’s responsible for all those noisy guitars too.)
I love the title of this album, too. “Arth” is Welsh for bear, but they’ve written it as if to say “BEEEAR!” Like a shouted warning. That sense of dread follows the record from first song to last, and has crept into the way these songs are written and structured. AAARTH still sounds like the Joy Formidable, but whereas in the past they’ve built up these massive structures of sound, these unbreakable towering things, here the songs sound like they could topple at any time. They’ve done this without sacrificing the power of their sound, too.
Listening to AAARTH is like getting the rug pulled out from under you every few minutes. It starts with the sound of a CD skipping, then plunges you into the weird, off-putting “Y Bluen Eira,” sung in Welsh while the band feels like it’s falling apart and crawling back together. It’s like they’re saying right up front “here, deal with this.” A song like “Go Loving,” with its double-time drums and layered guitars, should be an easy win, but the band drops the floor out a couple times, as if sabotaging it.
I mean, just listen to “Cicada.” This song is awesome, creeping along on a slithering riff, and the arrangement just never lets you get a handle on it. “All In All” should be an acoustic ballad, but its production is otherworldly, in an uncomfortable way. In fact, uncomfortable is a good description for most of this album. It has an uneasy, unsure feeling to it, one that keeps me riveted. It’s clear that all of this uncertainty is baked in – this is exactly the album Bryan and her bandmates wanted to make, and they worked hard to make it this way. The result is a record that refuses, at every turn, to be reassuring. It’s a record that takes a familiar sound and pushes it oddly out of reach.
And I think that’s what I’m talking about. It’s subtle, like the wind changing, like the curb not being quite where you expect when you step down. While AAARTH fits that bill, I think the best recent example I can come up with is Double Negative, the amazing new album from Low. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Rogers have been making music under the Low name since 1993 and they’ve never done anything quite like this, their 12th long-player. The pair made their name as a guitar band, playing slow, spare music that moved at a snail’s pace. They’ve evolved considerably since then, but Double Negative is still something of a shock.
This is the most uncomfortable listen of my year, and I bought four Jandek albums. This record is built on drones and thuddingly repetitive loops, and while you can hear Low in there (on “Fly,” for instance, which Rogers sings with gusto), most of it is either enrapturing or off-putting. Often both, at the same time. “Dancing and Blood” is six minutes long, two of them at the end taken up by competing drones that are out of tune with each other. The other four conjure a post-apocalypse of reverbed drums (mixed so loud they clip the speakers) and Sparhawk’s fragile voice, processed beyond recognition.
Even a song like “Always Trying to Work it Out” feels shaky on its feet thanks to the production. It’s a gorgeous little number, but the explosive bass drum that pounds every four beats renders everything else inaudible, like it wounds the rest of the instruments and they have to climb back each time. Sparhawk’s voice sounds like he’s singing through a laundry chute, and everything crumbles under waves of noise and static. It’s an absolutely incredible experience, like all of this album. You really need to listen from beginning to end, and allow yourself to get lost in it, no matter how much your skin crawls.
The final track, “Disarray,” might be my favorite, as it juxtaposes the gorgeous and the guttural extraordinarily well. The music, such as it is, on this track is a repeated pulse of noise and tones that is mixed so loudly that it bursts out of your speakers. Over this, Sparhawk and Rogers spin a glorious web of harmonies, singing about how it’s too late to make things better. This should be beautiful, but it’s just ear-splitting enough that beauty remains out of reach.
And it’s that, that sense that these things should be beautiful, that I’m really talking about here. That’s what anxiety feels like – you can see how everything should be beautiful, and you know it isn’t, and you can’t quite put your finger on why. Double Negative captures this, whether purposefully or accidentally, better than anything I’ve heard recently. It’s a difficult time, a fearful time, an uncertain time, and this album (well, all three of the albums I have talked about this week) underscore that perfectly. The earth keeps moving, our steps remain unsure, and our future remains up in the air. And this is what it sounds like.
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In such times it’s good to have traditions to hang on to. I know I broke with one of those traditions last week, and I’m sorry. I’m still pretty far behind in my listening, but here’s the Third Quarter Report anyway. It’s not drastically different from the Second Quarter Report, though it does show that I have reconsidered some of the albums that made it onto that list, pushing them up or down or off. If I had to run my top 10 list right now, here’s what it would look like:
10. Frank Turner, Be More Kind.
9. Sleep, The Sciences.
8. The Choir, Bloodshot.
7. The Boxer Rebellion, Ghost Alive.
6. Derri Daugherty, The Color of Dreams.
5. Wye Oak, The Louder I Call the Faster It Runs.
4. Low, Double Negative.
3. Jukebox the Ghost, Off to the Races.
2. Darlingside, Extralife.
1. Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer.
Monae is so far out in front of everything else I have heard this year that it’s almost embarrassing. Looking at my notes for the rest of the year, I don’t see anything coming out that will challenge it. We’ll see about the rest of the list.
Next week, could be anything. But probably some thoughts on the new Doctor Who. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.