A Million Dead Birds Laughing – To the Ether

A Million Dead Birds Laughing are back[!], although not as you knew them. The Melbourne oddballs’ long-awaited fourth record, To the Ether, marks their first full-length release since original vocalist Adam Stewart returned to their line-up in 2016. Yet, those seeking a fix of the band’s usual quirky grindcore may need to apply elsewhere.

To the Ether is a significant departure from AMDBL’s traditional style. The change is evident just from the track info itself. Of the album’s eleven tracks only three – “Lit”, “Dim” and “Hersun” – adhere to the band’s usual monolexical naming scheme. The 2016 stand-alone single “Umbilical Dystrophy” has been the only AMDBL song to have bucked the one-word trend previously. Yet, here we are regularly treated to such lavish titles as “Abyssal Comfort and Woe” and “Martyrdom in the Fourth Dimension”. Moreover, most of the tracks boast a playtime well in excess of four minutes and sometimes even approach the six- or seven-minute mark, which is well above the band’s usual sub-two-minute compositions. The album also breaks the forty-minute mark for the first time in the band’s career, making it the longest album in their catalogue by some considerable margins. Such observations would usually be superfluous, but these minor details are indicative of a record that is rather removed from anything AMDBL have put their name to in the past.

There’s hardly anything on To the Ether that could accurately be described as grindcore. Instead the album leads toward a sound that might more readily be described as “atmospheric” or “post” tech death. Although it comes out of the gate in the band’s usual frantic fashion, with “Martyrdom…” and “Black Hole Spirit”, the album quickly takes a turn toward more “ethereal” textures, from which it never quite returns. It’s quite effective when the album’s opening track first gives way to an ambient soundscape, unexpectedly. However, when the process is repeated twice more, following “Lit” and “Of Storm and Stars”, it quickly loses its sheen, and that each subsequent track either repeats the process or simply refuses to get going in the first place only adds to the sense of diminishing returns.

That so many of the record’s songs dissolve into atmospherics is (softly) jarring, in terms of the album’s momentum. Often a song will consist of two-or-so minutes of build-up to a minute or two’s worth of “actual action”, before another forty-or-so seconds of meandering atmospherics round things out. That is, except in the case of To the Ether’s three longest compositions: “Dim”, “Phoenix Fire” and the title-track; which drag on monotonously for five, six and seven minutes respectively, without ever actually building to anything. These tracks are also entirely devoid of percussion, which seems like a severe under-utilization of newly-drafted drummer Daniel Presland (Ne Obliviscaris). Some shorter ethereal interludes, like “Abyssal Comfort and Woe”, probably would have worked well interspersed in-between an album’s worth of more traditional AMDBL fare, but to elongate them and then make them the focal point of the album creates quite the endurance test.

That so many of the record’s songs dissolve into atmospherics is (softly) jarring, in terms of the album’s momentum. Often a song will consist of two-or-so minutes of build-up to a minute or two’s worth of “actual action”, before another forty-or-so seconds of meandering atmospherics round things out. That is, except in the case of To the Ether’s three longest compositions: “Dim”, “Phoenix Fire” and the title-track; which drag on monotonously for five, six and seven minutes respectively, without ever actually building to anything. These tracks are also entirely devoid of percussion, which seems like a severe under-utilization of newly-drafted drummer Daniel Presland (Ne Obliviscaris). Some shorter ethereal interludes, like “Abyssal Comfort and Woe”, probably would have worked well interspersed in-between an album’s worth of more traditional AMDBL fare, but to elongate them and then make them the focal point of the album creates quite the endurance test.

None of To the Ether’s harsher moments are particularly memorable either. The aforementioned “Of Storms and Stars” and “Pink Smoke // Vacuum Rot” represent the bet of what the album has to offer. The former hints at a more natural incorporation of the new aesthetic, while the latter feels like the logical continuation of a track like “Equilibrium”. Yet, “Martyrdom…”, “Black Hole Spirit” and “Lit” each roll by without leaving any real impression, and none of the later, ambient compositions ever really build to anything truly noteworthy either. Gone entirely is the groove that anchored previous standout tracks like “Void” or “King”, which may simply be a result of guitarist Ben Boyle and bassist Nick Rackham finding a more suitable outlet for these elements in Hadal Maw. However, there isn’t much variation or catchiness in the vocals either and, while there appears to be some tale of cosmic feminine horror that ties the record together, it’s difficult to become invested in, given how buried Stewart’s vocals seem to be in the mix – even though they ostensibly have less to compete with in terms of their surrounds.

To the Ether is arguably the most ambitious AMDBL album to date. Yet – for all its projected depth – there appears to be deceptively little on offer here, once you really begin to break it down. The band are known for being able to able to cram a lot of material into exceedingly little space, without any of it losing any of its inherent impact along the way, but To the Ether feels like it takes a long time to say comparatively little, and often seems to be simply redeploying the same trick over and over again. Such a repetitive approach may (or my not) be an effective communication of the album’s themes. However, it doesn’t make for a particularly engaging one.

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To the Ether is available now, independently, through bandcamp.

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My pen halts, though I do not. Reader, you will walk no more with me. It is time we both take up our lives.