Evolution is a tricky thing, musically-speaking. Any band worth their salt goes through this process in some form. If the ideas and concepts you carry with you as a young, fresh band are raw materials, then subsequent work should be an ongoing process of refinement and polishing, tempered by a continual experimentation that breathes new life and brings new raw materials into the process to continue the cycle. Some bands never really get past the initial stages of this and stunt their creative growth in the process. Others choose to take the process in giant leaps and sidesteps, constantly keeping their listeners on their toes. For most though it’s a gradual, if at times uneven, process.
Australia’s Tangled Thoughts of Leaving is a perfect case study in gradual, but insistent sonic evolution. Arriving on the scene in 2008 with their debut EP Tiny Fragments, TToL originally impressed many (including this site in its nascent form) with their hyperactive mixture of jazz fusion, math-rock, post-rock, skittery electronics, and heavier elements. Since then the band have continually tinkered and streamlined their sound, producing an excellent debut LP in Deaden the Fields that fit more neatly into the oeuvre of dark post-rock/metal without losing all of the experimentations in jazz and noise that they started with. If the band’s open-ended sound lends itself well to this constant evolution however, their sophomore album Yield to Despair feels like the perfect culmination of years of work to arrive at an altered, yet definitive sound that should serve the band very well for years to come.
To best understand Yield to Despair, you need not turn to Deaden the Fields, but rather an EP they put out a couple of years later in 2013, Failed by Man and Machine. At the time, the heavier emphasis on drone, noise, and quasi-improvisational group buildups over piano-centric riffs, particularly on tracks like ‘(quakes)’ and ‘(tremors)’, felt either like a fairly radical departure or a momentary sidestep. In context of Yield to Despair however, the EP serves as a perfect stepping stone or bridge between the two LPs. Not only is Yield to Despair darker, heavier, and more indebted to drone and noise than ever before, but it is also looser, more improvisational, and more devastatingly beautiful than perhaps any of their prior work.
As I noted in my writeup of their Downbeat EP last fall, the most immediately noticeable change in the band’s sound here is in its increased emphasis on ensemble and impressionistic composition. Ron Pollard’s piano/keys work is perhaps the signature feature of the band’s discography, serving as the musical spine and nervous system to the muscular rhythm section surrounding him. Piano is still heavily-featured and integral to much of the music on Yield, but in much more subtle and less flashy ways, often blending in the mix alongside Behn Stacy’s measured drumwork and Andrew McDonald and Luke Pollard’s intense guitar and bass playing, respectively. A moment of respite in lead track ‘The Albanian Sleepover – Part One’ provides breathing room for piano to shine through the darkness, sandwiched between the filthy noise of the first half of the track and the anxious buildup that propels itself into ‘The Albanian Sleepover – Part Two’. There’s an incredibly nervous energy flowing throughout these two opening tracks, an off-kilter cyclical nature to its rhythms and chord progressions that leaves the listener constantly on edge. As ‘Part Two’ degrades from brilliant piano and guitar interplay into unsettling noise, inescapable dread — a theme that runs throughout Yield‘s nearly 70-minute runtime — embeds itself and resolves in pitch black muck, the sonic equivalent of the amorphous black substance spewing from flasks and containers throughout the album’s artwork. There is no room for flashy piano runs and riffs here. Any light would simply be swallowed by the darkness.
If there is any real moment to breathe on the album, it comes in the form of the jangly ‘Shaking Off Futility,’ or as it could easily be called, the best song Earth never wrote. It’s not the first time the band have played around in this area of meditative drone and stoner metal, but it’s the most fully-realized and drop-dead gorgeous one they’ve produced. It wraps you in a paradoxically warm melancholy and will keep you entranced throughout. Even though almost all of these 5 tracks are well north of 10 minutes, the musical universe each piece lives in is so utterly rich and developed one cannot help but fall prey to it. Much of that is due to the superb job Ron Pollard did in producing and mixing the album. Each and every ounce of sound packed into here is dripping with intent and clarity, even at its most cataclysmic.
The relatively calm beauty is fleeting though as ‘Shaking Off Futility’ leads into ‘Downbeat,’ the 18-minute behemoth that serves as the thunderous peak of the entire album. ‘Downbeat’ is an absolute monster of a piece, destroying everything in its wake with a wall of sludge, electronic squawks, and a single melodic theme that could scrape the paint right off any surface in its pointed acidity. If that track is an unstoppable force of inertia and momentum though, closer ‘Yield to Despair’ is the ghost that haunts the trail of wreckage left behind. That inescapable dread described previously crawls within the track’s crevices, lurking within the shadow cast by the track’s relentless pulse. Yet again piano is given a moment to rise to the surface in a last desperate attempt to hold back the overwhelming emotions and emptiness suggested throughout the album. As the title suggests though, the struggle is in vain, and the track’s climax and conclusion fade into a static-y dissonance.
None of this is in any way a radical departure from the band’s previous work. There is a logical and consistent through-line from Tiny Fragments to Yield to Despair. But the work featured here, while less immediately impressive technically than that debut EP or even Deaden the Fields, leaves a much deeper lasting mark. It is the sound of a band who have settled into a type of haunting meditation, forcing the listener to breathe in its immense and emotionally-crushing weight. Tangled Thoughts of Leaving are pushing the boundaries of instrumental metal with every release, and Yield to Despair makes it abundantly clear that they should be considered in the premier league of such bands. Yielding to despair never felt so easy or necessary.
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Tangled Thoughts of Leaving’s Yield to Despair gets…