All answers to the question “what is myth?” revolve around images. When you boil down myth, a ludicrously complex term, you find archtypes, common images which percolate beneath the surface of the story being told. These images aren’t immediately approachable; we can’t access these ideas, their meaning or their relationships to each other without the mediation of the myth. That’s the goal and use of a myth, to bridge the gap between storytelling minds and the essence of what they would like to say. Through this intricate dance of referent, referred and meaning we wade, using elaborate cave wall paintings to try and move past the grunts and howls we use to communicate, try to use the inherent distance of ideas to move past the mundane world and its traps. Our guides on these paths towards the unattainable are many but myth is perhaps the oldest and most important of them.
One of the most prolific and – through the rule of big numbers – powerful of these myths is the one about the four elements. It has countless iterations, versions, permutations and sources but even now, most of you reading this know exactly what I’m talking about. It doesn’t have to be the same elements every time but they’re always numbered four. If there are more, they are divided into groups of four. The basic version includes fire, earth, water and air, of course. Each of the elements represents much more than the physical manifestation; earth is stolid and healthy, water is dynamic and powerfully stubborn, air is elusive and philosophical and fire is bold and corrosive. In these divisions manifests the beauty of the equation of myth: change one side of it and the other is transformed as well.
Thus, we can choose which side of the story we want to modify, to spin our own narrative. If we change the elements listed, their traits must change as well. They might change in name, assigning new traits to new elements or they might stay the same, a statement just as powerful. You could switch up fire and water for light and dark for example and, suddenly, elements of Judeo-Christianity are present. You could change earth to wood and present a more naturalistic point of view. This flexibility, one of the major reasons why myth survives the test of time so well, makes myth a very accessible and relatively simple way to “touch” ideas. This is, and herein we get to the point, very useful for bands. For what is a band but an attempt to enforce a narrative on a corpus of music, to give shape and direction (like an album or even a track) to that which is not inherently tied together?
Take Dreadnought for example (subtle transition, right?). There are many ways to tell this band’s story, from their first, still criminally unknown Lifewoven release through the explosive popularity that was afforded them following Bridging Realms’s release in 2015, creating a vectorial narrative of linear increase. You could also choose to tell their scene’s story through the band’s increasing popularity, the ever increasing presence of the Denver scene in metal (The Flight of Sleipnir, Primitive Man, Blood Incantation, Khemmis, Call of the Void, Spectral Voice, just to name a few) buoying alongside their own, as the rising water of a scene narrative floats all individual boats. Or you could tell the tale of The Doom Revival™ and the obsession that’s been brewing in the online metal community for the innovation and progression of the basic doom metal sound, an obsession more than slaked by Dreadnought’s experimentation with the genre.
Or, as we’ll choose to do here, you could strip all of that down and try and focus on the smaller/larger myth residing in the band’s own work. By eschewing meta-narratives for the moment (we’ll return to them near the end, don’t worry), there’s a fair amount of insight to be found in the actual musical choices the band has made and the narrative they have arranged them around. This is, of course, the narrative of the elements. Like the proposed changes above, Dreadnought have reconfigured the basic relationship between the elements and assigned each album to its own domain. Lifewoven is earth; it has more folk influences and opens with what is probably the most ponderous bass line of Dreadnought’s career so far. So too the rest of it; the album has weight and a downwards momentum. The piano hits hard. The bass is loud. The harsh vocals are corrosive. It is an earth album, even in its cover art. It is about rebirth and health and willpower and perseverance.
Bridging Realms, masterpiece that it is, is space (ether, if you feel more comfortable calling an element that). It has many more quiet segments, with notes as far apart as stars in the great void. The bass is more resonant, it spreads farther along the mix. The flute and other brass instruments are the triumphant voice, the majesty of the stars. It is about an endless voyage, a journey into the unknown, about going beyond time and space, about sinking into the black hole. The clean vocals bear the chill glory of the spheres while the abrasive vocals sear the soul like the fires of heaven. Its cover art is the breakdown of senses, the seeping over of other realms. It is about challenge and triumph and exhilaration.
And now, on October 6th, we’re going to get water. A Wake in Sacred Waves is everything we could have expected from Dreadnought, and more. It is a continuation of their sound but a bold one, one which takes them beyond their comfort zones and into new, well, waters. It is a far more dynamic album than the ones which precede it, as befits an album named after the element which flows. The progressive elements in Dreadnought’s sound have been turned up. In their favor, the psychedelic ideas and the folkier sounds have been subdued but this is a net win; it makes A Wake in Sacred Waves into a punchier album, a condensed version of the ideas which made Bridging Realms so successful. As such, it is also their heaviest album, containing some of the most heavy hitting passages of their career.
Which is not to say the trademark extended passages, piano filled spaces and contemplative moods have been discarded. There are plenty of those still on the album. But, the emphasis on the more progressive elements allow the band to swim back and forth between the different parts with greater agility. Take the second track, “Within Chanting Waters”, as an example. Its opening is sheer glory but it quickly builds into one of the most hectic and heavy passages on the album. Starting at one minute and thirty seven seconds, the drums, bass and guitars fly into madness, the roiling waves crashing upon our vessel. This passage, quickly joined by Kelly Schilling’s soaring vocals, continues for a full minute. It is glorious but the deeper lesson to be learned lies in how it transitions into the quieter and more drawn out segment that follows it.
In previous albums, the transition would have been like a wave smashing against a breaker. Indeed, Dreadnought’s ability to instantly change pace is what initially drew many of their current listeners to their sound. It’s a much lauded attribute in progressive circles, somehow conflated with quality or skill. But here, as good as those past transitions were, Dreadnought show they’ve learned a thing or two, mostly about restraint. Water doesn’t suddenly change direction; it flows. So too the track. The heavy passage doesn’t just cut to the quiet one but instead leads into a bridge which repeats the chords found as the track opens. These are still heavy but less hectic, laying the ground for the decrease in tempo which comes after it. It eases you in, leading you along the river’s current, taking the bends at its own time.
Even when sudden transitions are made on A Wake in Sacred Waves, a dazzling new ability and talent for them has been added to the band’s roster. Especially noteworthy is the absolutely incredible bass/drum transition on the first track, “Vacant Sea”. You can hear it starting at five minutes and seven seconds and it’s one of the grooviest things you’ll ever hear. Ushered in by a single guitar hit, the entire band seems to shift tempo as one. Again, instead of a break, you have a flow, a subtle change in direction which is, nonetheless immediately felt. Piano, guitar, bass, drums, vocals, all work together to guide this new direction into its fruition and the continuing line of the track. This then is the deepest way in which this album is water. It stands out from the previous two works to the degree in which the band operate as a cohesive unit, working together to craft track and album progression.
This might have been the last piece of the Dreadnought puzzle; previous albums (and you know we loved them) sometimes had this disjointed feeling, as if things were placed one after another but didn’t flow. Thus, the myth has come full circle. With their dive into the element of water, Dreadnought seem to able to translate idea into concept and into actual changes in skills and talent, into knowledge learned from the process. The emphasis on the elemental narrative is more than just semantic chicanery or a child’s game; it’s a deep reflection on what makes the band tick. The result is their best album yet, a more cohesive and elegantly progressive work that finally manages to bring Dreadnought’s ambition into a more mature and well relayed fruition. It is their sound injected with direction, their myth tapping into the basic sounds which make them work. The whole working with the part and the part disappearing into the whole.
It’s a fucking great album, OK?
A Wake In Sacred Waves is out this Friday, October 6 through Sailor Records. You can purchase the album through Dreadnought’s Bandcamp here. And if you haven’t already been convinced by now to support this band and one of the best albums anywhere this year, then I don’t really know what to tell you.