Next week we’re going to talk about Tool’s first album in 13 years. Yes, I’m excited about it. The single is pretty amazing, in that Tool way in which it doesn’t seem to do much, but builds and builds almost imperceptibly until it’s raging by the end. I don’t know of another band who does this quite this well, outside of the realm of post-rock, and if they can sustain that over 86 minutes, they’ll win me over.
But that’s next week. This week I thought we’d talk about music that is kind of the polar opposite of Tool’s work. I think some people underestimate how serious I am when I say I listen to everything. I literally listen to everything I can get my hands on. My musical brain needs a lot of different kinds of stimulation, so going from Sinatra to Mesghuggah doesn’t seem that odd to me. I like ugliness as well as beauty, about the same.
Where bands like Tool are often going for the ugliest beauty they can create, the two artists we have on tap today are aiming for a sort of beautiful ugliness. Both of them are telling difficult stories, some as old as time but as relevant as the daily news, and making the prettiest and most engaging music they can as backdrop for them. And while one of them is right in their wheelhouse, the other has stepped so far outside it as to be unrecognizable.
We’ll start with the former. Iamthemorning is a duo from Russia, consisting of vocalist Marjana Semkina and pianist Gleb Kolyadin. Together they create dramatic, classical-influenced music that sounds, for good and ill, like the work of trained musicians. That means it can come off a little mannered, like Kolyadin and Semkina are reading and reciting these pieces, not living them. But if you can deal with that – and if you’re a fan of orchestral music, you pretty much have to deal with that regularly – their work is truly enjoyable.
The fourth Iamthemorning album is called The Bell, and its authors consider it a song cycle in two parts. I like that you can gaze at the artwork that adorns this record, listen to the whole thing and come away thinking that it’s pretty and bright. You have to dig into the lyrics to really understand how bleak it all is, and you need to read about the cover painting to know that it depicts a coffin bell, attached by a string to the inside of a coffin in case of live burial. It’s a metaphor, Semkina says, for knowing that you can call for help if you need to.
The album itself is about (near as I can tell) a woman who is buried alive in the ocean, dies and comes back to haunt her killers. Its lyrics are remarkably dark and hopeless, particularly on tracks like “Blue Sea,” in which our protagonist drowns. The music is unfailingly gorgeous, in total contrast with the anguish of the words. “Sleeping Beauty” is lovely, and it’s only if you dig deeper that you realize it’s about being trapped in a glass coffin. “Lilies” seems particularly influenced by classical piano pieces, Kolyadin pounding out some complex runs while Semkina sings of metaphorical drowning: “The water’s embrace is the same no matter how fast its pace…”
Some of The Bell reminds me of Kate Bush (and, by extension, Tori Amos), particularly the climactic “Salute,” but Iamthemorning have established their own sound by this point, and no one else is doing it. The Bell may be inspired by 19th century stories of cruelty, it feels like a response to the current state of the world as well. It feels like an expression of the helplessness we all feel in the face of things, filtered through this duo’s singular sensibilities. It would be hard for me to say that I enjoyed The Bell, but I definitely came away from it impressed.
By this point you kind of know what you’re going to get with Iamthemorning. Not so Brad Mehldau, as anyone who picked up his new album Finding Gabriel expecting his trademark jazz piano playing can attest. I hope those people weren’t too disappointed, since Mehldau has delivered a bit of a masterpiece here.
Finding Gabriel is a mostly instrumental record of vast scope, employing electronics and rock beats and strings and an array of musicians and vocalists. It was recorded over an 18-month period as Mehldau dedicated himself to a close reading of the Bible, and it serves as a rumination on the promises (both joyful and dreadful) contained within. Most tracks here are accompanied by a Bible verse, all of them from the Old Testament, in which God is jealous and angry and unmoved by suffering. This is rich ground to draw musical inspiration from, and Mehldau uses that foundation to cast his eye on the world, and the rising tide of fascism that seems to be claiming it. This is an album that shouts “deliver us, O Lord,” in nearly every note.
On several of these tracks, Mehldau plays everything. “O Ephraim,” which draws from the book of Hosea, finds him layering his nimble piano playing over a thick bed of synthesizers and drums, all of which he performed. But in equal measure here are songs like “St. Mark is Howling in the City of Night,” a stunning piece of music that incorporates a string trio, electronic pitter-pat drums and the voice of Becca Stevens, singing wordlessly. This song takes so many twists and turns, ending up in a completely different place than it began in.
“The Prophet is a Fool” is one of the more aggressive numbers. It’s a scathing indictment of Donald Trump’s America, and leaves no doubt about it. (“Build that wall,” a crowd chants, while a voice tells us that listening to Trump makes people feel stronger, when in fact it makes them weaker.) Joel Frahm lays down some impressive tenor sax soloing while Mehldau provides a morphing synth bass part that lends a queasiness to the whole piece. It’s the darkest thing here, and it’s remarkable stuff.
In contrast, “Make It All Go Away” is a synth-cloud plea for peace, with Kurt Elling lending his inimitable voice to the track’s rising, yearning sound. That gives way to “Deep Water,” a beautiful song that feels like hands rising up to the sky. It’s taken from Psalms: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck… I have come into deep waters and the flood sweeps over me.” It sounds like this, Stevens returning to add yearning vocals over the track’s strange treated strings. We finally get to Job on “Proverb of Ashes,” and it’s a workout, with another swell Elling performance.
This whole record is a jaw-dropping surprise from Mehldau, far removed from the paths he usually treads. But he’s found a way to make a record based in ancient scriptures that sounds like now, that draws a straight line from Job and David and Hosea to us, crying out for deliverance. It’s further proof that Mehldau is a treasure, whatever he decides to do. He’s a deeply thoughtful artist with extraordinary chops, and Finding Gabriel is a deeply considered piece of work that will resonate for years to come.
Next week, Tool, of course. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.