Hello. Yes, it’s me. Try to contain your excitement. I don’t know if I want to say I’m “back” as some sort of grand return, but I will likely be handling more of this stuff again for the time being, and I’ll be around for our end of the year issue.
I feel like I should have something profound to say here given my time away and such, but I don’t. Things are in most ways pretty much the same as when I left them. We’re staring down the barrel of yet another highly contagious covid variant that will tear through the globe and crush the hubris of anyone who thought we might finally, truly be approaching the end of this nightmare. I’m personally preparing for another winter of essentially sheltering in place, the main difference from last year being I can actually see my family and some friends who I trust aren’t taking unnecessary risks, which is definitely a big plus. But outside of that things continue to feel to be in a kind of stasis. More people die, next to nothing gets done to make things better for much of anyone, the biggest looming problems continue to be mostly ignored and kicked down the road out of a kind of learned helplessness.
Anyway, I know you’re not here to see me indulge in my fatalistic tendencies, so let’s just skip straight to the music, shall we? No interview this month unfortunately, but thankfully there were more than enough worthy releases to make up for it.
-Nick “Thanks I hate it here” Cusworth
You, You’re Awesome (Top Picks)
Blankenberge – Everything (shoegaze/post-rock)
Now on their 3rd LP in less than 5 years, St. Petersburg, Russia’s Blankenberge have swiftly positioned themselves as a force to be reckoned with squarely in the center of the shoegaze arena. I know that definitions of the genre vary widely depending on who you’re talking to, but when I think of “shoegaze,” the sound it conjures in my brain sounds exactly like Blankenberge. We often bemoan the mundanity of formulas, but if we’re being honest, sometimes a little formula can go a long way. Shoegaze is a genre where you need to get the formula just right.The vocals need to be folded just so into the mix, distant but still discernible. The instrumentation needs to achieve that wall-of-sound quality, but it can’t be so cacophonous as to become noise rock. You can’t overstate the guitar performance, but it still needs to drive the narrative. It’s trickier than it seems.
On their first LP Radiogaze, the band leaned a bit too far into the wall of sound idea, resulting in a record that was strong compositionally, but problematic from a production standpoint. That being said, take a few minutes to listen to “Falling Stars.” Somewhat buried behind a pulsing mass of fuzzy distortion there’s one of the most affecting vocal melodies I’ve heard in the past half-decade; I’m a New England guy, which means I can be somewhat stoic and hesitant with my feelings, yet more than a handful of times that chorus has brought tears to my eyes. It’s like an entire choir boiled down into a single voice, shining brilliantly out of the darkness. It captures you, and if you’re anything like me you’ll be drawn back to it in search of a premise through which to feel things you aren’t accustomed to feeling. Therein lies one of, if not the greatest strength of this band. Yana Guselnikova can sing. This isn’t some mumblecore shoegaze band that hides their vocal deficiencies deep within the mix. Her voice absolutely shines, and even as it’s positioned somewhere toward the middle of the mix in classic shoegaze form it finds ways to rise above everything like a beacon piercing through the darkness. The band clearly understands this advantage, as Guselnikova has been positioned with increased prominence on both this record and their sophomore effort More.
It’s not just the bewitching vocal performance that sets Blankenberge apart, though. They have become masters of doing just enough. As in, exactly enough. The instrumentation is relatively simple, yet still composed for maximum impact. The riffs may not wow you in a bubble, but they take center stage with such confidence and poignancy at crucial moments, utilizing a power chord swagger to achieve a subtler kind of potency. This isn’t an album that’s going to be drawing anyone into the pit at shows, but it’s perfectly and exquisitely loud exactly when it needs to be. It’s a record that offers you the opportunity to don headphones and become blissfully buried beneath beguiling layers of sound, but also has definitive, individual bangers, with an innate sense of pacing that should be greatly appreciated. There are tracks that stand out as unquestionable singles, and they run the gamut, with “Time To Live” appealing to post-rock sensibilities, “No Sense” checking all the vital dream pop boxes, and the title track landing somewhere in an intoxicating space somewhere between the other two.
Calling back to the concept of formula, I’m reminded of the legendary B-movie director and producer Roger Corman, who said that in order to keep viewers in the seats you need to understand the importance of providing some kind of thrill at least every eight to ten minutes. Everything inherently understands the importance of that credo. There are plenty of ethereal passages to lose yourself in, but they are never out of shouting distance of an honest-to-goodness, approachable guitar riff. Depending on the context in which you’re listening, you may not be shaken up by the gradual dynamic shifts, but they make all the difference. This is a testament to how Blankenberge have become masters of their craft.
Just as an aside, much respect to Elusive Sound. Money talks, and when you don’t have the resources it’s inevitably not long before you find your hands tied. Their last pressing as label will be BLAK’s El Tall d’escil-la at the beginning of 2022, but it needs to be said that those guys knew great music when they heard it, and they also knew how to push bands in the right directions to become the best versions of themselves. Pretty much every band associated with Elusive showed stunning sonic growth after signing on. In addition to Blankenberge there’s also Au Revoir, Glasir, BLAK, Silent Whale Becomes A Dream, Show Me A Dinosaur, and Trna, who all took massive leaps in production quality once they joined forces with the label. Then there are bands whose sole albums eventually found release with Elusive, like Ravena and Somn, who recorded independently but were still plucked from relative obscurity with a surgical sonic sensibility. We should all be mourning the loss of this label, not only because they put everything they had into all of their releases, but because they genuinely understood how to recognize and cultivate talent. All of these aforementioned bands, including Blankenberge, owe some degree of gratitude to Elusive Sound for fostering them and encouraging a growth they may not have embraced under different circumstances. My hat’s off to Philippe Allenbach, Peter Pires, Remo Albrecht, and Josh Tedd – those guys deserve your undying respect.
Long Hallways – I Still Believe In Us (jazz, cinematic post-rock)
Time for a sweeping and completely anecdotal-based generalization! On the whole it seems like the post-rock coming out of the American west coast and Pacific Northwest has a distinctly different flavor from their peers in different parts of the country. In California you have bands like Whale Fall, Arms of Tripoli, and even Wander who all take an approach more indebted to jazz fusion, “cool” jazz, and classic instrumental math rock than most. Further north in Oregon you have Gazelle(s) and the now-defunct This Patch of Sky, who make expert use of strings to add emotional weight to their work. With so much of the genre elsewhere defined by more straight-forward and harder-edged rawness, these bands stand out for going in different directions towards more emotional and compositional nuance.
The one band not mentioned in this group who effortlessly blends pretty much all of the qualities described above is Portland’s Long Hallways. I got on-board with them starting with their previous album, 2019’s Close Your Eyes to Travel. That album brought a cavalcade of saxes, brass, strings, and miscellaneous percussion to produce a purely transportive musical experience. (Fun fact: when I was somewhere in the middle of my 10-hour cab trek through the mountains and dangerous snowfall leading to mudslides to get from Tehran to my wife’s family in Northern Iran [after an already near 24 hours of transit just to get to Tehran], Close Your Eyes to Travel was the album I listened to in order to get me through my sleep-deprived and out of my mind anxious state.) Equal parts melancholy, pensive, and uplifting, the music of Long Hallways is an absolute aural feast.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the band’s follow-up to that, I Still Believe In Us, absolutely continues the band’s excellence in all of these areas. In many ways the album sounds like a direct continuation of Close Your Eyes to Travel, from the similar style and themes present in its beautiful album art, to similar instrumentation and mood. That said, I Still Believe In Us absolutely stands on its own as a beautifully-crafted album unto itself. Right from the propulsive wistfulness of opener “Our Last Days” the band continue their streak of writing long-form instrumental compositions that pull on the heartstrings and take you on an incredible journey towards something that feels triumphant and hopeful. There are few bands that come to mind who are able to consistently pull off this feat, namely legendary bands like yndi halda and Do Make Say Think, and based on their body of work and this album Long Hallways absolutely deserves to be spoken in the same way as other elite-tier post-rock groups.
Other highlights include the bari sax-heavy “Forgotten Magic,” which takes some mid-east flair and quickly blows it up into a fantastical epic, and “Whale Bone Crown,” which sits on some heinously delicious grooves. And of course there’s closer “Seedlings,” which starts out as the most delicate of the album’s songs only to take a heel-turn a little more than halfway through into the album’s absolutely biggest climax. The album is only 6 songs at a relatively brisk 35 minutes, but the package works brilliantly and does nothing to overstay its welcome. Long Hallways has never been the flashiest or loudest band around, but on I Still Believe In Us, they prove yet again why they are surely one of the most compelling and nuanced post- bands in the scene.
Maybeshewill – No Feeling is Final (post-rock, modern classical)
It’s hard to put into words what Maybeshewill means to me. Quantitatively, they’re my second most listened to band since 2007 (shoutout Lastfm) with their first EP Japanese Spy Transcript and 2008 debut full-length Not For Want of Trying largely being my stepping-stones into the genre of post-rock proper. I was obsessed with the efficiency of their minimalistic piano-riffs, and how they’d harmonize with these relatively heavy, and often math-rock inspired guitar riffs. Their song structures were fairly simple by post-rock standards, often deploying many of the cliches detractors of this genre criticize it for. But hell, they just did it so well. Those goosebump-inducing build and release climaxes with their perfectly timed spoken-word audio samples manipulated my heart-strings in a way I hadn’t really experienced from music before.
The Leicester, UK based group would go on to put out four albums between 2008 and 2014, with their third I Was Here For a Moment, Then I Was Gone taking their first significant stylistic shift with the addition of keyboardist Matthew Daly. Synthesized violin and cello strings became the norm, and the band seemed to look deeper, dropping the samples for a more refined, mature tone. But then in late 2015, they suddenly announced they were disbanding. Devastating.
Fast-forward to 2020, things are happening…? The band are announced to be playing ArcTanGent Festival, and then there’s teasers of new music, culminating with the announcement of their fifth full-length No Feeling Is Final. I didn’t really know what to expect from 2021 Maybeshewill. The last album they put out in 2014, Fair Youth, was by most accounts their weakest. It opted for a softer, ambient approach that was perhaps more contemplative, but felt less inspired and in general just a bit, bland. Eight years later, would they be able to recapture the lightning of their early work? The band states this album was born out of weary exasperation from the world around us, and through that vexation – they certainly have.
Stylistically this album is somewhere in between I Was Here For A Moment… and Fair Youth, with the string orchestration of the former driving many of the songs, yet holding onto some of the ambient nature of the latter. With exception of the throwback “Refuturing”, the electronic touches are for the most part replaced by a neoclassical and at-times folk-inspired approach, such as the stirring single “Green Unpleasant Land.” Their guitar-enforced climaxes make a pleasant return in “Invincible Summer”, one of the most dramatic and powerful tracks on the album. In general the guitar presence is a tad understated, and on first listen this was one of my biggest complaints. On repeated listens, the subtlety of the guitar shined brighter, as they’re often withheld until just the right moments so that when they do show their face the presence is much grander. This clever play of dynamics is really apparent on “Even Tide”. But if you’re expecting the walls of sounds and the mathiness of their debut, you’re mostly out of luck.
This is probably their best sounding album, from a production standpoint. Maybeshewill have long championed a DIY ethos, and that’s reinforced here as bassist Jamie Ward handled all the recording and production. The drums especially have a great, in-your-face, almost live-sounding presence. The way the orchestral elements and guitars blend have this room-filling power that makes you feel like you’re in some golden hall with wonderful acoustics. It’s the sort of music that beckons to be seen live with a full accompaniment.
Maybeshewill are a band whose message and passion have always been bigger than their music itself. Thus, the challenge is often whether the music can live up to that enough to do it justice. They recognize that all music is political, and wear that proudly on their sleeve. Their spoken-word samples make a return in the form of British Labour Party MP Zarah Sultana’s impassioned speech in “Zarah,” voicing the frustrations of the younger generations being denied a future by the short-sighted global elites inaction towards the climate crisis, and for the working class to break from the complacency and complicity in these systems that sustain it. It’s an empowering message that’s often echoed in a sense of urgency throughout the album. In a world right now that needs whatever it can get, Maybeshewill have channelled their contemplative frustrations and fiery passion into a message of hope and solidarity, and we should consider ourselves grateful to have them back. “Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
Outrun the Sunlight – A Vast Field of Silence (post-rock/post-metal)
Let me tell you a story. It was ArcTanGent 2019 and I was in the main tent looking for a spot. I think it was the Russian Circles but I’m not sure. Anyway, I don’t like standing near the stage, especially not in the wet conditions which had already been turning the grounds of the festival into mud so I made my way to one of my favorite spots: right under the sound station. It’s usually elevated, so you can see the stage well, and you can lean right up against the barrier separating the sound engineers from the crowd because you’re getting older now and you’re tall so your back hurts. I find this spot, settle up quite nicely and then turn my head left to find Austin and Cody from Outrun the Sunlight standing right next to me.
Uh, what? I had no idea these guys were attending the festival. They weren’t playing that year (by the way, can ArcTanGent please book them already?) and although we were Facebook friends, I hadn’t seen anything about them attending. Imagine my joy! I distinctly remember both Austin and I bursting out laughing, incredibly excited to have run into each other (and then to get to watch some excellent live shows together). I keep coming back to that moment of sheer joyous expression, surprise mindling with the warmth of friendship and long-distance ones at that. Beyond “just” the sheer power of the feeling, its suddenness was something special; there’s the degree of heat but then there’s also the speed at which it overtakes and how prepared you are for it.
In many ways, that intensity of feeling and surprise is how I feel about Outrun the Sunlight’s music in general. I’ve been following, and writing about, the band for the last seven years and yet, still, somehow, every time I listen to a new album by them I am overwhelmed by the sense of warmth, familiarity, hope, melancholy, and sheer power that their music is able to conjure up inside of me. A Vast Field of Silence is no exception; indeed, I am now fully of the position that this Outrun the Sunlight’s best album yet, and that’s saying something since I consider their previous work to be among the best albums straddling the precarious divide between post-rock and post-metal. But A Vast Field of Silence is even better than those previous works; in the synth tones, in the compositions and their patience and energy, there lies a tighter, more expressive, and more communicative version of Outrun the Sunlight’s music than we’ve heard previous.
“Emerald Joy”, which we got to premiere before the album’s release, is probably my favorite example of this. From the track’s brighter beginnings, through the heavier riffs that are quickly introduced, and all the way to the absolute maelstrom of unisons which make up its center and the absolutely massive outro which follows them, “Emerald Joy” just sings the emotion for which it was named. Whether in the sweeping guitars of the aforementioned outro or the scintillating synths (seriously by the way, the synths on this track and album are mind-blowingly good), Outrun the Sunlight just sound like they’ve taken flight, soaring on everything they’ve learned since they released Terrapin all those years ago. Mostly, that flight sounds more cohesive; whereas previous tracks used to lean on a specific element, leitmotif, or theme, “Emerald Joy” and the entirety of A Vast Field of Silence is a lot more comfortable in presenting and running with several ideas one after another or, more often, at the same time.
This creates such a rich album that to go on describing its discrete moments is an exercise in futility. The idea of A Vast Field of Silence (as might be hinted by its name) is in the totality. Through immaculate attention to details such as tone, composition, and timbre, Outrun the Sunlight conjure up a broad, communicative, and effective album that takes the already massive promise of their early and mid career albums and launches them into the stratosphere. Like running into them at ArcTanGent, A Vast Field of Silence is an outburst of joy that will stay with me for many years. And hey, maybe I’ll run into some of you out there, one day? That will make me just as happy. Until then, happy listening and remember: I love you.
Enjoy Eternal Bliss (Best of the Rest)
Death Stare – Haze (doomgaze, dronegaze, post-rock)
When I conduct my research for this post I spend hours scrolling through new releases on Bandcamp, with overwhelmingly uninteresting results. Every so often I come across a monochromatic, vaguely eerie album art design that shakes me awake and makes me think “this looks promising.” I understand that it’s probably not the most academic approach to be drawn to albums with specific, if generic, artwork, but when you’ve been doing this as long as I have you earn the right to trust your gut. And wouldn’t you know it, this bleak, fog-shrouded design representing an album called Haze happily turned out to be exactly what I was hoping it would be. This is a solo project from Salt Lake City (seriously, what’s going on in SLC? I Hear Sirens, Black Flak and the Nightmare Fighters, Blackshape, and now Death Stare, not to mention Cult Leader; plus, although I don’t really give a shit about these bands, and only realized their origins via Wikipedia, apparently Imagine Dragons, Neon Trees, and The Used originated in the Salt Lake Area, all of which carry varying degrees of big-time success along with them. Anyways, Death Stare is another highly satisfying doomgaze artist that really leans into the atmospherics and cranks the volume just the way you like it at all the right moments. I’m not sure this is an artist that anyone will ever have the opportunity to see live, but the music is certainly the type that would provide a platform for the kind of catharsis that thrives in a communal setting. Regardless of how you’re able to absorb it, you’d be well-served to seek this one out.
Isolation Drills – year one (doomgaze, dronegaze, post-rock)
Anyone who has paid even a marginal amount of attention to anything I’ve written over the past year and a half will know that I have hopped fully onto the doomgaze/dronegaze train. If it can be described as “slow,” “moody,” “heavy,” “weighty,” and “emotionally exhausting,” chances are I’m on board. Not even gonna lie, when I’m perusing new releases on Bandcamp and I see an album cover that depicts a stark, unassuming landscape, especially if it’s presented exclusively in shades of black and gray, I immediately perk up. This Indianapolis duo was brave enough to leave some blues and whites in their design, but I could still sense what they were going for, and I was thrilled to find my expectations validated (their promo photo on Bandcamp is a bleak, blurry black and white, so they at least hedged their bets there in case you didn’t glean their vibe from the album art). year one is slow and eerie enough to retain the “atmospheric” descriptor, but lively enough to capture my undivided attention. This is a tightrope that many have unsuccessfully attempted to traverse, so credit is due to any band that can navigate it gracefully. If you dig this and want to explore some similar material, make sure to check out Outlander and Of The Vine, as well as the unfortunately defunct Atlanta outfit Pallow, whose 2017 record Blueprints for an Empty Vessel remains a mostly undiscovered masterpiece.
The Endless Shimmering (Other Notable Releases)
Blackeye – V O D A (post-rock, instrumental prog)
Carmen Sea – HISS (experimental, post-rock, noise-rock)
Could Seed – Mirage (post-rock)
Elusive Arizona – The Best Of…Crescendo-core! (dronegaze, …crescendo-core)
Ephemeral Echoes – Ascension (post-rock, instrumental prog, post-metal)
Languor – Perpetual Beginnings (post-rock, post-metal, neoclassical)
SISTEMAS INESTIBLES – oppidium (post-rock, math-rock, experimental)
Twin Image – Before Your Love (shoegaze, post-rock)
Vast Waters Billowing Tides – 總有一天你會遇見一個彩虹般絢麗的人 (post-rock, shoegaze, atmospheric)