Anechoic chambers are theoretical bliss and experiential torture. Created to study the sound of objects, these rooms have been sound proofed to the point of negative decibels, the quietest of which (Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota) rests at -9.4 dBA. The space derives its torment from a complete lack of sensation; even in the most serene environment, no conscious moment is entirely devoid of sound. As lab founder Steven Orfield explains, “When it’s quiet, ears will adapt. The quieter the room, the more things you hear. You’ll hear your heart beating, sometimes you can hear your lungs, hear your stomach gurgling loudly. In the anechoic chamber, you become the sound.” People who’ve ventured into the chamber discover how terrifying this can be. Without the cues of sound, movement is rendered impossible. Without the distraction of outward stimuli (save for the walls of a repetitiously patterned cube), thoughts and inner functions provide the only point of focus available.
Though it’s obviously impossible to truly connect a lack of decibels with music, there’s a certain quality of Wreck and Reference‘s compositions that warrants their comparison to one of these chambers. Felix Skinner (samples/vocals) and Ignat Frege (percussion/vocals) craft music that feels uncomfortably still; even at its loudest, the duo’s music necessitates as much active absorption as it does squirming introspection. This approach – along with their intriguing stage setup – causes a bit of initial unease, as was the case when they opened up for Pallbearer and Deafheaven at the opening date (The Sinclair in Cambridge, MA) of the latter’s first Sunbather headlining tour in the States. But as the set progressed, the crowd’s response grew more powerful, eventually leading to full-blown adoration as the band tore through “Apologies” from Want, their most recent record at the time.
This discomfort on the part of listeners stems from the band’s internal conflict, both existential and musical. Whether from Skinner’s blackened screamo shriek, Frege’s coonhound bark or both of their bemoaned singing, pain permeates throughout the duo’s vocals and lyrics to a devastating degree. But the task of pinpointing becomes truly difficult when it comes to their sonic approach. It’s as if their collective mindset is comprised of the angst-ridden industrial that Nine Inch Nails produced with Downward Spiral spliced with the mature, soundscape oriented focus of Trent Reznor à la Ghosts, with plenty of Have a Nice Life and Agape-era Lantlôs for good measure. Admittedly, the raw, noisy affairs of the band’s debut (Youth) is a bit more than a sidestep away from what Indifferent Rivers Romance End has to offer. But in terms of pure, emotional evisceration, these albums are one in the same.
In terms of establishing a tone, opening track “Powders” excels in every measurable aspect. It’s as perverse as a love(-ish) song can be before withdrawing into darker traits. Skinner spearheads the track’s success, lamenting over piano with clenched teeth before exploding within soaring guitar lines. He introduces the duo’s gaping-wound lyrics with his piercing vocals, recalling:
I was gagging on the fat, sick dripping down my face, when you told me to relax, when you said just take a break. When you rolled me on my side, and I began to shake. When you asked me for a reason, and I said I could relate. And I don’t know what you think when you look at me, and I don’t know what to say as we lay in bed. I don’t know what you think when you fall asleep, but when I fall asleep all I can do is count my breaths.
What’s most impressive about this track – and the album as whole – is how much the duo accomplish with such sparse instrumentation. While each track typically contains stark, lightly developed synth textures, percussion and vocals, the summation becomes an enormous wall of sound that envelops the listener with every note. This even holds true when the occasional softness arrives; on “Ascend,” Skinner’s typical emotional descent blends surprisingly well with a bleeding slide guitar melody. But the overwhelmingly somber mood returns on “The Clearing,” where Skinner and Frege’s vocals intertwine over Eighties synths to ponder:
But where do you go when the earth doesn’t pull anymore? Where do you go when the current runs out? What do you play when the games trickle from your hands? Who do you talk to when words are scattering sand? Carve me. Do it slowly.
As Indifferent Rivers Romance End unfolds, its mood only deepens and expands. “Liver” feels like the titular organ desperately fighting cirrhosis, drowned synths, vocals and permeating noise representing its urgent clawing at the light. But as prevalent as this taxing atmosphere may be on the record, W&R have a keen sensibility for providing variety when necessary. Not only is “Languish” an excellent example of this, it’s arguably the strongest track on the album. Plucked strings and shaking noise samples interchange with resonant piano notes to deliver a performance which defies placement as either a symphony or cacophony. Frege’s drumming elevates the track even higher (or drags it lower, depending on your interpretation of the mood). His raucous syncopation molds crashing cymbals and pounding drums into an already thick atmosphere, accenting an exceptional track even further.
While this assertion may seem like a cop-out, Indifferent Rivers Romance End is truly one of those albums that must be heard in full – sans distraction – to fully appreciate and enjoy. Priming the palette with Youth and Want would be beneficial, but in and of itself, W&R’s latest testament to their own self-loathing and outward distrust is a sonic experience that stands alone and encourages isolation. The duo touches upon a broad sonic territory, and anyone remotely interested in any of their genre’s of choice will discover a fresh listen from their newest musical curiosity. It’s an undeniably dense listen – an album that requires a wedge and sledgehammer rather than a standard chisel. But beneath it all lies a web of morbid motifs hellbent on providing a surge of emotions that leads to utter nothingness. And in that barren space rests the least tranquil of respites – a background for the listener’s introspection to orchestrate from whatever muse lies beneath the surface.