Friday, July 16, 2010

At the Soundawn – Shifting

Contrast (con’trast): justaposition of different things.

Texture (Tex’ture): the effect of the different components of a piece of music such as melody, harmony, rhythm.

Surprise (sur’prise): to make somebody amazed.

Three words, each familiar to us.  Three words that best sum up my emotions and feelings after bathing in this stunning post-rock, hardcore-ambient, progressive metal masterwork.  I’m sure I could find more words, but I'll let these three suffice.

Italian prog masters, At the Soundawn, have created an album of dramatic and powerful emotional resonance.  Growling hardcore one moment, deeply introspective and meditative the next.  Brutally heavy and diaphanous and delicate.  Urgent and languid.  Ugly and beautiful.  Song by song, moment by moment.  Shifting is epic songwriting and performance at their peak. The album reminds me of the ocean, calm and meditative one moment, violent and deadly the next. Like the ocean, Shifting follows certain patterns and movements, but always with the suspense of the unexpected.

To be honest, I didn’t expect to like this album (hence the “surprise”).  I remember it vividly.  I was in the Drive-thru line of some random fast food chain waiting for a burger when I popped this disc into my player.  After about 50 seconds of quasi-epic intro, the vocals exploded through my speakers.  And I do mean exploded--terrorizing me in the type of screamo assault that usually give me warts.  People who know me know that I can deal with anger, passion, and violence in my singing, I just don’t like being yelled at.  By the 1:40 minute mark, I was ready to turn the CD off, but wouldn’t you know it, fate intervened.  Before I could reach for the stop button, the attendant’s electronic voice squeaked through the speaker system to take my order.  Distracted, I got my burger all taken care of and moved my car forward to wait to pay.  It was then that I suddenly took notice of the music.

What had started out as an aural attack on my sensibilities had suddenly transformed into something remarkable.  Gentle jazzy bass looped underneath the atmospheric guitar, gorgeously clean yet still emotive vocals called to me, and on top of all this layered the most amazing trumpet I’d heard in ages.  Avant-jazz metal?  Suddenly, At the Soundawn had my attention and never lost it again.

In contrast to this middle passage of “Mudra: In Acceptance and Regret,” the beginning suddenly made sense.  Contrast and texture.  Anger and penance.  Tension and release.  And so the song went all the way to the extended neo-ambient ending. 

Combining the intensity and pure heaviness of an ear-slayer like Isis, with the ambient textures of Explosions in the Sky, the melodic beauty of Porcupine Tree, the fury and vision of Opeth, and a touch of Pink Floyd, At the Soundawn are a surprise in the making.  Contrast.  Texture.

“Black Waves” roars back in full screamo fury.  Bass lines play out a passion play of melancholy.  Drums and cymbals crash with the thunder of loss and regret.  But not for long, as with so many of At the Soundawn’s compositions, the only constant is change.  Halfway through-- the metal drops out.  Disembodied sighs cascade over the tint of cymbals and the ambiance of keys.  Toms kick in, like a pre-tribal ceremony, hearkening a coming hunt or kill.  By the time the quasi-classical melody vocals kicked in, I was mesmerized.

“Caofedian,” reverses the formula. From it’s atmospheric beginning, it slowly builds in power and intent as the song progresses.  The song reminds me of a metaphor for the day; opening slowly as the sun rises, the first rays of dawn slicing through the morning clouds.  Light sparkles and shimmers in the textured guitars, the heavenly vocals.  A moment of promise and potential.  Until the 5 minute mark, when all hell breaks loose. Drums pick up in intensity, anger and directness.  Vocals that were once so soothing erupt into a maelstrom of anger and disappointment.  There’s real emotion here.  And stunning craft.

Following the tribal beat of “Drifting Lights” At the Soundawn launch into “Hades,” the most Explosions in the Sky work here, with lightning bursts of distinctive guitars.  And so it goes, the fury and the feeling.  The beauty and the brutality.  The melancholy and the madness.

Shifting isn’t an album for the timid.  It requires your participation, your intent, to fully suck the marrow from what At the Soundawn offer.  It's an album that must be taken as a whole, not a passage, a song, or even a segment.  Several listens of the album are needed to grasp the ever shifting layers and emotions.  But it’s worth it.  My Ripple brethren would probably place At the Soundawn next to bands like Les Descrets in their overall scope of dark and brooding atmospheric metal. 

I’ll agree.  Then I’ll hit the play button and do it all over again.


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