The Winter Of Our Content IV: Joy Division Know No Pleasure

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I had planned to listen to Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures at dusk, and write about it in the lengthening shadows before it was completely dark. Sunset came and went, so I ended up listening to it as the long night started, the bursts of winds reduced to shaking trees, skittering leaves and a cold sensation on my hands and face as I pulled the headphones on.

Before buying this album, Love Will Tear Us Apart was the only song by Joy Division that I knew. Consequently, I assumed most of their material, and their cultish popularity, was based on simultaneously upbeat and afflicted music. Unknown Pleasures is not upbeat on any level. It is mostly slow and sparse, and overwhelmingly minor. If the vocals weren’t as clean and the drums and guitar heavier, it would be a depressive metal album. As it is, it isn’t heavy, it isn’t catchy, it can’t be danced to, and it sounds quite sparse. The guitar is spacious, scraping or chiming, the bass rumbles, and the drums are light, with minimal fills.

Ian Curtis’ vocals, at first listen, seem fairly flat; not as in at the wrong pitch, but as in being fairly unremarkable. Although the lyrics are vague, working heavily in imagery and metaphors, the mood is unambiguously disconsolate. Recurring lyrical themes are depression, isolation, guilt, selfishness, stasis, failing relationships, urban decay and suicide, and the all-round existential pain of being. The few times it sounds like it’s about to become upbeat, such as Insight, with its pulsing bass line and echoing synth, it always turns to reveal an equally sunless other side. Opening track Disorder embodies this characteristic, an almost calm riff accompanied by the bubbling panic of lines like ‘Could these sensations make me feel the pleasure of a normal man?/These sensations barely interest me for another day’. This panic creeps through into second track Day Of The Lords, Curtis dolefully asking ‘Where will it end?’ A song born of the darkness, it enters with a pulsing, lurking riff. A trait that soon becomes a defining characteristic of the entire album, the riffs steadily repeat, unconcerned with changing, the vocals giving way to frequent instrumental sections. It’s almost as though the neutrality and lack of energy – quite obviously, usually bad things in music – are what gives this album its character.

Given the dominant lyrical themes, this stasis is fitting. The mournful baritone vocals of Day Of The Lords are at first listen seemingly about a zombie apocalypse, but on closer inspection, although indefinitely remaining open to interpretation, are obviously about something much realer; suicide, the pain of life, or maybe even fascism. The track fades out into Candidate’s slow entrance, a chorus-heavy guitar like rusty metal echoing over from a mile away. Full of space, the unvarying nature of the songwriting creates a haunted mood. ‘I tried to get to you…’ repeats at the end, until it just peters out. Again, the lyrics are vague, but refer to the themes of corruption, loss of passion, guilt, the inevitability of failure and mental breakdown. This unconcerned repetition is a big part of the song writing throughout the album, with riffs plugging away for minutes at a time on New Dawn Fades, underpinned by a gritty bass guitar. As the title suggests, the lyrics document the chance of ‘hoping for something more’ and of a new beginning  in a relationship, before quickly losing direction in the face of mutual apathy. Likewise, riffs repeat in Shadowplay, unconcerned with changing, building up a morbid sense of momentum with its brooding bass intro and ringing cymbals, gathering a rich, raging guitar sound. Fast and minor, there is an apocalyptic nuance within lines like ‘To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you/ To the depths of the ocean where all hope sank, waiting for you’.

The album lumbers on, head in hands, on a downwards spiral, getting better each step of the way. In particular, She’s Lost Control builds up as it documents the unravelling of a relationship, and the narrator’s consequent slip into destruction. Interzone enters with a fast hi-hat beat, then an almost rocking bass and guitar take it away, searching for friends who can never be found amongst urban decay and manic depression. And then it’s out, at 2.15. I Remember Nothing enters slowly, with scraping echoes, lurching bass, and the sound of a bottle smashing. The riffs repeat, unchanging, whilst two layers of vocals talk over each other, until it fades out with a long instrumental section.

I don’t know much about Joy Division’s contemporaries and the Zeitgeist of post-punk music, so for me it’s really its own beast. First released in 1979, the album liner notes are minimal, with just a track listing, a few credits, and artwork evoking the contours of a mountain range in black and white. I wasn’t sold on Unknown Pleasures at first; I approached it with a lot of cultural baggage, having bought it on the basis of its legendary reputation, and found it to be gloomy, low on energy, sparse, and depressed as one of those fish that lives at the bottom of the sea. It is solitary, entrapped, non-communal music, and as such, I think this explains why it’s a winter album. The unknown pleasures of this album aren’t esoteric or exotic sensations; they’re feelings of happiness, and of everyday feelings. Although when I started listening to it, the night was already dark, when the music stopped and I looked up, it seemed as though it had grown a little darker.

The Winter Of Our Content III: The North Stands For Nothing

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I think While She Sleep’s The North Stands For Nothing might prove to be the odd one out in this series. Looking at the short-list of albums I intend to write about, by and large they have the common characteristics of being long, conceptual, and possessing some sense of breadth or expansiveness about them. The North Stands For Nothing is riff-based, short, overtly aggressive and polemic, just as much hardcore as it is metal. It’s actually an E.P., only 24 minutes long; short and sweet bitter.

While She Sleeps use many features familiar to the Sick Of It All/Hatebreed style of hardcore, with plenty of low and simple chugging riffs, gruff vocals, gang shouts and oppositional lyrics, with song titles like My Conscience, Your Freedom and Proud Of The Demon In Me. The production is meaty, more metal than scratchy hardcore.

The opening track, The North Stands For Nothing, chugs straight in, with a low-slung, pummelling riff, the hoarse vocals shouting oppositional lyrics, with minor harmonics over the top and gang shouts in the chorus. Given this description, on paper this sounds fairly standard, and by association, fairly mediocre. However, whereas a lot of bands who combine hardcore and metal in this fashion write riffs and songs that are imitable, forgettable, and from a musician’s point of view, quite lazy, the calibre of the riffs and the song writing on this E.P. have clearly been given some thought, and the quality is evident; sitting here, listening to music that is not While She Sleeps (the soundtrack to the film Pi, actually), I can replay the songs in my head no problem. On his review of Kylesa’s Spiral Shadow on Invisible Oranges (www.invisibleoranges.com/2010/12/kylesa-spiral-shadow/), Cosmo Lee wrote ‘For a heavy band now to write 11 songs that one can tell apart is virtually unheard of’. This E.P. is one such exception.

Case in point, the second track takes me unaware; Trophies is just piano and vocals, reverb-heavy and brooding. The lyrics are presumably about a deceased father or friend, and come across as a kind of personal dedication, but the vocal style is still the same. When have hardcore vocals been used over a piano-led eulogy before? This is far more honest and sincere than most hardcore bands’ almost default status of pointing fingers, ranting about betrayal, and how D.I.Y. they are.

Third track Crows continues to hold up the calibre of the riffs and the song writing, although the lyrics are confused, with oppositional diatribes jutting up against posicore lines, such as ‘Give me your hands/This is the end/We’re all going to fucking drown/Let’s make a change now’. Although such inconsistencies crop up throughout the E.P., such as ‘We are beaten but we are the ones you can lean on’ in Proud Of The Demon In Me, it’s not as though these occasional lines stop the music dead. There are moments of writhing lead guitar work, particularly in My Conscience Your Freedom, some charging gang shouts throughout, and an evocative step back in Lost Above The Arches.

So this is a very good, and in some ways, typical, metallic hardcore album. So how is it suited to winter? There’s no element of it that overtly makes it so; the production is full and meaty, and the lyrics revolve around day-to-day struggles of integrity and personal toil, rather than around nature or themes of transcendence. Whilst there are quieter, contemplative piano-driven tracks, the whole album feels suited to sitting outside in the cold, so it’s not just on the basis of a few tracks that I’m attempting to call it a ‘winter album’.

Having though about it for a while, I can’t quantify or break down why this is. There’s a lot of grit to it, and is good for a bit of energy. I suppose whilst it’s still reflective, it is faster, shorter and more constant than the other albums I have in mind. However, I’m sure there are other albums that fit into this criteria that I’ve omitted from this list, which thus deconstructs this line of reasoning. In what feels like a bit of a cop-out in reasoning, I’m going to say listen to it, and see what you think.

While She Sleeps ticket

 

The Winter Of Our Content II: Samothrace Ride a Horse of Their Own.

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‘He bore no tidings and although it was the custom in that wilderness to stop with any traveler and exchange the news he seemed to travel with no news at all, as if the doings of the world were too slanderous for him to truck with, or perhaps too trivial’ –  Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian.

Upon the arrival of the time when the four horsemen ride, the seven trumpets sound, and I must climb that mountain path to wage final battle with the gods/God/deity of choice, I will be listening to Reverence To Stone. There are many moments listening to this album where I wished I was in Samothrace, or just playing a gig covering this song (yeah, good luck pal), just to be playing something so epic. Samothrace take elements of songwriting to their extremes, their riffs splitting off and wandering away, travelling in unforeseen directions, recounting old places and leading away again, consuming you in their journey.

So unsurprisingly, Samothrace are pushing into new territory. Despite the finesse of this obviously carefully structured songwriting, the guttural, completely unintelligible vocals conjure up a sense of the primitive, of a time before words, when mankind scratched out an existence upon a world where everything occurred with an indifferent slowness. With the lyrics so obscured by the vocal technique, it’s a shame this album can’t be fully enjoyed by just sitting back and listening. That said, the vocals suit the music, with the minimalism of lines like ‘Ancient Wash/Tired Force/Birthed Life’ reading like hieroglyphs carved into stone, no word rushed, each syllable dragged out.

This bands ebbs and flows, the pacing determined by the guitarists’ urging or restraint, rather than by the drums. They work more like percussion much of the time, suggesting space and creating punctuation, rather than leading the rhythm, with lots of cymbal work. The guitars, panned to either side, mirror each other here and there, sometimes two separate layers, variations of riffs coming to and merging away, with a melody developing all the while. There is no sense of hurry, with the riffs wrought out and hammered for all their worth.They sometimes step into space and swirling feedback, building up and carrying the weight forward beyond all anticipation, other times suddenly taking off into crushing volleys, the lead work never less than evocative of panoramic views. When We Emerged starts with sparse, soft guitar plucking, and then the noise rolls in, loud and slow, it takes nearly 4 minutes for the vocals to enter, the deep tortured howls completely unintelligible even with the lyrics in front of me. In A Horse Of Our Own, humming bass and spacey plucking at 3.35 builds up over the next four minutes, with some kind of kettle drum growing in regular bursts, guitars weaving and feedback mounting, in sweet, sweet tension, until a new riff smashes in, screaming, again and again. The bass guitar rumbles and churns underneath for the most part, with a short and sweet solo at 6.45 in When We Emerged, which is quickly taken up and developed by a lyrical guitar solo through mounting phrases.

The production is bass heavy, but still sharp, with plenty of heft. Reverb is applied liberally, adding to the sense of space that rings out throughout the album. One thing I loved was how feedback was used to carry a riff. At 15.05 into A Horse Of Our Own the instruments cut out, with just single note stabs here and there, a wounded howl re-entering over the top of ringing cymbals, with a weary, considered guitar line, every note laboured, and throbbing feedback. For the next five minutes everything is drawn out, until it fades to a buzzing, then just the wind whipping past, into silence.

Lyrically, Samothrace are obscure, writing predominantly in symbolic language. When We Emerged seems to be about taking a step back, in order to move forward renewed, using the evolutionary moment of life stepping from the sea onto land as a metaphor; ‘Back to the sea/…/To see what we missed…/When we emerged’. A Horse Of Our Own is thematically centred upon the pursuit of a individualistic and self-determined way of life and the necessity of not compromising in this pursuit, most obviously in ‘You’ve drawn/This line/One thousand times/This foe/But we’ll fall alone’. The horse is the one ridden through the journey of life, along which violence will be witnessed (‘This road is red’), as will the corruption and everyday compromises of people (‘These hearts/are black’). It will also lead to wealth, which will never be enough or prove to be of an elusive nature; ‘We led/To that trough/Of Wealth/…/But when we awake/Our steed was dry/Charred and steeped’. It’s open to interpretation whether these contradictions are about how we will always harbour some sense of personal discontent, or the necessity of always moving on, but either way we are destined to go through this world without finding a home. Are we ultimately isolated? The final lines, ‘But we’re all…/On a horse…/Of our own’ say as much.

As I wrote this article, I found myself turning to the sleeve notes whenever I was stumped as to what I was trying to say (which was quite a lot of the time). Why Reverence To Stone as a title? Given the heavy symbolism that Samothrace employs, it is not unfeasible to read it as suggesting a sense of communication with nature. It is on this background that they talk of hardships, and suffering as part of existence. I suppose that this, in some ways, is what the concept of winter albums comes down to. This is an album for when the doings of the world become too trivial to truck with. An album for standing at the top of mountains, cold and transcendent, watching the four horsemen approach.

Flyer for gig, promoted and designed by Milgram Records.

Flyer for gig, promoted and designed by Milgram Records.

The Winter Of Our Content I: A Storm Of Light stare into the Abyss

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The nautical theme is an obvious part of A Storm Of Light’s And We Wept The Black Ocean Within, and having listened to it fairly regularly over the past two years, I’ve come to consider it to be a concept album about being lost at and finally to the sea. It’s only recently that the possibility of this concept serving as a metaphor for the subject of termination, and on a wider scale that of extinction, have occurred to me, and its consequent suitability as a winter album.

Why this is, I’m not sure, but I suppose that in the same way the longer you stare into a piece of deep dark water, the less you know about it, the more I listen to this album, the more its soundscapes, lyrics and artwork all evoke the intensity of absolute cessation. Gaze long into an abyss, and it will also gaze into you. Dying at sea, presumably, comes with an inescapable sense of impending termination, as the force that has surrounded and isolated unceasingly for maybe months at a time finally becomes the enactor of obliteration. It is through this premise that I propose As We Wept The Black Ocean Within to be a winter album; it evokes the scale, the indifference and the hostility of nature, the sense of the whole world shrinking into one precarious outpost, isolated and inescapable, and the connection between winter and death. I considered trying to write this review from the perspective of one of the characters in the album’s narrative (yep, we have a concept album here), to try to evoke this sense of totality, but found my own experiences actually bettering this by having been to sea myself.

The possibility of being consumed by the water, and disappearing from the world of men permanently without a final word,  creates a very intense, all-consuming mood (to clarify, the chances of this actually happening  to me were very slim, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. It was dramatic, alright?). Although the last thing I would have wanted to listen to during my time at sea was anything vaguely evocative of any sense of personal eschaton, now that I am safely on land, the intensity and immersive textures draw me in, partially through being so highly evocative of that time.

The sea is part of the album, with the wind moaning through the rigging, the ocean slapping and gurgling against the hull, foghorns sounding and sea-spray splattering across the deck. These sounds recur repeatedly throughout the songs, which contribute to their textual nature, largely devoid of riffs and lead parts, and mainly instrumental. Where there are vocals, they vary between a hoarse, weary baritone shout and screams of frustration, laboured in the best way, but at times also sonorous enough to sound almost like chanting. This is a slow band; not once do these guys get anywhere near fast, more often in free-time than 4/4. Chanting is used heavily, as are reverberating and deep piano chords, sudden crashes of distorted guitar, leaden, pleasingly plodding drums. The end is coming, but sure as hell you’re going to have to sit and wait for it as the waters rise; there are many moments of protracted silence or of just the sound of the sea. Whilst the influence of post-rock is obvious, the typical build-crash-build-crash structures are absent; A Storm Of Light really have their own style, and I can’t think of any other band that sounds like them. Doom also filters through, most so in the pacing, but the atypical instrumentation prevents it from being so readily classifiable. The sound is also more that of doom, thick and murky, rather than possessing the sparkle of post-rock.

Through this style, a story is told, the Moby Dick influence rearing early, sighted on Black Ocean with the introduction of the whaler. Track by track, or more soundscape by soundscape, the perspective changes between that of the whaler, the whale, and the vessel. The lyrical  concern is very much nature versus man;the whaler tells of how he kills ‘for blood and money’, Thunderhead is named after how sperm whales used to destroy whaling vessels by executing nature’s biggest head butt, and Mass and Leaden Tide are about humanity’s ability to destroy through greed. The story ends with the final line, ‘rust this hull down’, and the water comes rolling over. Down we go, taken by the riff, each repetition another lead weight, another rivet inexorably popping, everything fading to the sound of a large object clattering and buckling as it rumbles into the cold depths. A full five minutes later it ends with a clang. Silence returns to the sea bed, to the sea, and to the world, until it too meets its end.

The Winter Of Our Content

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Anyone who has ever considered music to be part of their life at any point has at least a few memories of their environment and their chosen music combining to become something greater than the sum of their parts. I remember listening to …And Justice For All in a dark and warm room whilst in the corner of my eye I could see snow falling outside, mounting against the window. I remember listening to Blackwater Park at a camp site I worked at, with brown and grey leaves swirling past and mud slushing underneath. I remember listening to Bert Jansch staring into a woodland fire under a canopy of pines as rain poured down.

It’s these memories, in part, that led me to spending the last 18 months refining a summer playlist. With my Walkman finally going to the great electronics graveyard in the sky (read: to the ‘why did I buy this?’ section of the top CD rack shelf) the iPod that has replaced it has given me the liberty of creating a playlist as long as I like. So I’ve spent that time choosing, testing and ordering tracks in an attempt to reach the perfect musical high as I lay in the sun drinking a beer in the late afternoon/early morning. Of course, living in England, this behaviour is restricted, optimistically speaking, from May to September. Then winter arrives (Autumn tends to get cancelled). So a winter playlist is in order, to follow on from the great success of the summer mix. But as I turn my hand to choosing tracks, I have a think, and stop. The winter weather just isn’t as conducive to creating a mix. Whereas the feel–good, fast–living and long–lasting days of the summer perfectly suited a Red Hot Chili Pepper live jam rolling into Black Tusk followed by some Down, and so on for the next three hours, the harsh winter weather places me in a less insouciant frame of mind. Introspection and absorption become the standby mood, and I find the best musical accompaniment for this disposition to be long, dark albums. I suppose the sense of continuation becomes more fixed, so sure, you could make a playlist of Agalloch going into Wolves In The Throne Room going into Shrinebuilder and so on. However, considering that these artists have created albums that already have a very strong, dark ambience, albums that work best experienced as a whole, I think to pull these pieces of music apart in an attempt to create some kind of better combination misses the point, and may even be an exercise in folly. Winter goes nowhere fast, and it’s dark so much of the time I feel much less impetus to be active.

Likewise, much as an environment can be enhanced by music, music can improve an environment, and its less enjoyable aspects (rain, cold, wind, mud, darkness, you know the score) can suddenly become quite rewarding. So sitting and listening to an entire album, whether inside or outside, and brooding, seems like a good way to spend the time. This isn’t to say I don’t listen to albums in their own right all year round, but I suppose more of an innate connection exists between the nature of winter weather and that of heavy metal music. That said, it’s not just metal albums that are particularly enjoyable in these conditions; Joy Division, Bob Dylan and The White Stripes are three examples that spring to mind. So over winter I’m going to listen to albums I think suit the season, hopefully both inside and outside, and see what happens.