Vision is not binary. We don’t either see something or don’t or, at least, that’s rarely the case. Most often, vision is a spectrum; first, an object is blurry as we view it initially. Then, as we draw closer, more details come to light and rudimentary pattern recognition kicks in. This process keeps going, edges come into shape, the closer we move in until, suddenly, almost without notice, the parts click into place and there’s a tree or car or sun. That transition, the movement from a disparate, object shaped “thing” to an entity we recognize, is one of the questions that have most troubled philosophy over its brief two millennia of fevered existence, in the form of problems like The Ship of Theseus, the pile of sand paradox and more.
All of them come down to the same question: when do collections of things stop being just a collection and turn into a cohesive whole? In this essence, this question is also present in the way that A Swarm of the Sun approach their music, especially on their new album, The Woods. More than just “simple” post-rock buildup, their music seems to feed on itself in a unique way, capitalizing on earlier passages to shine a new kind of diffuse light, more a feeling than specific callbacks. When you start the album on “Blackout”, this haunting seems to extend to the previous album; fragments of notes from The Rifts creep up during the extended intro that is this track. They contribute to the feeling of eeriness which suffuses its early passages, before the crescendo marking the first heavier point of the album.
“Blackout” then is the initial approach to the object in our sight metaphor; you’re drawing closer and something familiar comes out of the dark, its borders not yet distinct but its overall shape tugging at something in the back of your mind. The first shocking moment of crystallization comes with the vocals on the title track, immediately following the period of silence at the end of “Blackout”‘s demise. Their frigid simplicity, alongside the unexpected, almost “hopeful” lyrical content, shock us into attention, announcing the first clear contours of the album. Just like with The Rifts, they leave the listener hollow and dejected, as they too seem to be beyond hope, beyond personal redemption yet filled with an undeniable desire to keep going, to say something with the darkness. These feelings are then re-worked and re-engaged with for the truly titanic build up and release at the end of the track, probably the heaviest that A Swarm of the Sun have been so far, echoing tastes of The Ocean and Tangled Thoughts of Leaving as they exist the middle section of the album.
“An Heir to the Throne” is the cruelest track of the album; coming off of the almost uncontainable emotional energies of “The Woods”, it channels that feeling of when the object is clear to you but you find that it’s not what you expected. You stand there, weirdly intent on what you perceive, as the tension of the intro stands in stark contrast with the pummeling cacophony you had just endured. The vocals return; they are a cruel and melancholy caress, running on across your neck and sending a chill down your spine. You’re here; you’ve arrived. You see what you wanted to see, the object has come into focus and stands before you. For what? Where have we come? The terrible sarcasm of The Woods strikes at the core of the idea of moving forward, of finding new things. Instead, it offers you another pit, another void to fall into, just like before. Musically, in its slow, quiet, post-rock build up and its cavernous, thundering post-metal crescendos, The Woods channels both “Blackout” and “The Woods” and, in subtle ways, The Rifts into a culmination of what A Swarm of the Sun are about.
Which is, put simply, the despair and hope of constantly moving forward, of constantly yearning, only to find that, once you’ve arrived, once you’ve finally made out your mark and learned all there is to know, you’ve brought yourself along just as always.
A Swarm of the Sun’s The Wood releases tomorrow, 11th of January 2019. You can already stream the full album above; make sure you pre-order it as well. Happy travels.