Music

Avalanche

Some things end gradually. They fade away slowly, often slow enough that you aren’t even aware it’s over until much later. But other times it’s more sudden. It’s an intense and heartbreaking end, violent in its abruptness.

Tusks’ 2017 album Dissolve showed the slow dissolution of a relationship. Singer/songwriter Emily Underhill created sparse and haunting atmospheric soundscapes juxtaposed with harsh, wailing post-rock climaxes where her vocal lines faded away into the ether. Two years later, she’s refined everything that made Dissolve my 2017 album of the year – the quiet moments are even more chilling and tender while the louder moments are absolutely crushing. She’s sadder, angrier, and has only improved lyrically, compositionally and musically (despite suffering a broken elbow between albums).

Like the unforgiving force of nature that an avalanche is, this album is dark, deep and crushing. It’s ferocious. Intense. Every second demands your full emotional investment. At times I close my eyes and see shattering ice sheets, water eroding rock, glaciers melting and forests burning. I don’t think this is an accident – the visuals of manmade environmental destruction relates perfectly to the lyrical content of manmade relational destruction.

This is especially potent in the lead single Peachy Keen, which is a sarcastic takedown of patriarchal sexism, perhaps the most scathing since Braids’ Miniskirt. The climax in the title track sounds like a literal avalanche, with Tusks’ buried voice crying beneath a cacophonous wall of sound, “Bury me like an avalanche.” Listening to Bleach feels like a cleansing, a brief respite in the storm, with the repeated phrase, “I’ll bleach my soul” whispering through beeps and glitches. In Foreign, Tusks’s voice is distant in the mix, lamenting, “I don’t see you like I used to / I can’t feel you like I sued to.” And Salt is a perfect closer, with the chorus’s line “Does it end with you?” able to be taken several different ways, any one of which magically ties the entire album together.

Does it all end buried alone beneath this manmade avalanche? Or buried together in the avalanche they’d both created – thus ending the search for someone to “Be Mine”?

The Anteroom

More than should probably be normal, I think about a scenario when humans are long gone and AIs are roaming the earth (in whatever form “AI” as a very general term will inevitably take), scouring our wreckage and analyzing all the art us humans made. I wonder what they’ll discard or keep, what will interest them (inasmuch as they could be interested in anything at all) and what single musical album or film or painting perfectly encapsulated humanity’s fateful last moments.

I have a very visceral memory listening to How to Dress Well’s album The Anteroom for the first time. And before I even got to the track Vacant Boat, I was thinking about that AI scenario, convinced that this was the album for the AIs to try to understand humanity. So it was an eerie and somewhat transcendent moment when I got to this line from Vacant Boat:

Bury me in a quiet place where no one else can see
What my rotting flesh might accomplish once it’s released its energy
Or mount me in the middle of the living room entombed in a glass case
So the AIs that outlive us will look on puzzled and dismayed

The album has been out since October of last year and I’m still not over it (if you missed my Top 10 Albums of 2018, this was #1). So many lines have stuck with me since then but this AI line, to me, sums up what makes this album special – that is, the way Tom Krell has captured the anxiety brought on by progressing technology and all its social, mental and ecological ramifications. The song title itself is a punch to the gut of modern living – comparing the earth to a vacant boat, then wondering who will “index the reeking foam”. And the verse above perfectly describes the two sides (at least that I’ve experienced) of social media – either feeling buried and unseen or naked on display in a glass case. The interlude track False Skull 7 feels like a tweet sent unliked, unretweeted and unseen into the void – a single line saying “Today was awful” lost within a crackling, distressed atmosphere of sound.

The entire album sounds like the soundtrack to a philosophical sci-fi novel. It’s intricate, textural, at times either icy or scalding, and sometimes tender, often abrasive. The ambient soundscapes and distant, weeping vocals illustrate a modern, social isolation, making me feel like I’m drowning in cyberspace, wondering if everyone or no one can see me. The sporadic and fragmented cuts and glitches unnerve me in the way articles about the future of bio- and nanotechnology do. And the lyrics (it feels wrong to say “lyrics” because this album feels more like one cohesive poem set to music) are visceral, unsettling, stunning and compelling in the same way the pure potential of humanity and technology is – and vague enough that the future, although bleak, is still hopeful. Taking this album in feels like I’m staring down from some cosmic perspective watching earth slowly spin towards its annihilation or some corrupted stage of evolution, praying that someone down below can either stop this inevitability or artistically capture all that’s beautiful about humanity before everything is lost.

If that’s what Tom Krell was going for here, he may just be the one of the greatest artists of our time. Or maybe I’m just reaching.

But lines like “Nothing on this side was built for you” have so many angles I can’t help but see one of them being directed to the AIs in their post-apocalyptic society while they look on puzzled and dismayed. And “Like jumping off a cliff, but never falling” describes the unsettling stasis of modern technology – the sense of humanity collectively taking a breath during the calm before a storm. And then there’s one of the less subtle lines from Nonkilling 3 | The Anteroom | False Skull 1, “What we used to call a job is now handled by machines, you can die in peace,” which is a very OK Computer way to illustrate automated anxiety.

Annihilation as an inevitability, or desecration, are common themes throughout. Taken on a literal level, there’s a desecration of sound through warped vocals, glitches and uneasy ambience. There are lyrics about broken skulls, suffocation, oceans of blood, rotting and decay, bones bleached by light, and even the recurring phrase, “Nothing left to desecrate.” Is this end of desecration a victory or a failure? In the ecological and technological sense, what could possibly constitute an eventual victory? (Or, as Krell asks, “What altar could we possibly heal upon?“)

This sense of uneasy finality is echoed in the final – and hardest hitting – line from the album: “I could see you there like the child wishing the ambulance was for them.” And of course in the album’s title, The Anteroom – a small room, usually a sitting or waiting room that leads to another, larger, much more important room.

Will another ambulance come to take us to the next room? If we die here, will we be buried or put on display in a glass case? Is the next room the side that was built for us or for the AIs? How much will be desecrated?

Or is there even a next room at all?

Top 10 Albums of 2018

10. Daytona - Pusha T

Listen to: If You Know You Know

9. Mulberry Violence - Trevor Powers

Listen to: Playwright

8. Isolation - Kali Uchis

Listen to: After the Storm

7. Am I a Girl? - Poppy

Listen to: X

6. There is a Presence Here - Many Rooms

Listen to: Which is to Say, Everything

5. The Louder I Call the Faster it Runs - Wye Oak

Listen to: It Was Not Natural

4. When the End Began - Silent Planet

Listen to: Visible Unseen

3. Kids See Ghosts - Kids See Ghosts

Listen to: Reborn

2. Nearer My God - Foxing

Listen to: Heartbeats

1. The Anteroom - How to Dress Well

Listen to: Nonkilling 6 | Hunger

Top 10 Albums of 2017

10. Rabbit in the Snare – The Lulls in Traffic

Being a huge fan of Copeland, I was really excited to hear vocalist Aaron Marsh’s side project. The Lulls in Traffic features Marsh on vocals and production and lyricist/spoken-word artist Ivan Ives, and a really creative mix of hip-hop/spoken-word and indie.

9. Phantom Anthem – August Burns Red

August Burns Red has refined their craft to near perfection on Phantom Anthem. There’s really not much more to say.

8. Sleep Well Beast – The National

Like August Burns Red, The National have created a formula that works great and have been refining it over their past few albums. It seems to have come fully to fruition on Sleep Well Beast.

7. Turn Out the Lights – Julien Baker

I didn’t really listen to Julien Baker until this year so I got to enjoy both her new album and 2015’s Sprained Ankle. Both feature fairly simple songs instrumentally that put Julien’s voice front and centre – along with her lyrics. And it’s the lyrics that are the high point of these records, as she lays bare her struggles with depression, addiction and faith.

6. Die With Your Tongue Out – Tigerwine

Tigerwine’s debut album is another emotionally heavy-hitting album from this year. I found myself continually coming back to this album when sitting in traffic or needing to vent – finding comfort in the heavy, soaring guitars, dual screaming/shouting vocals and sing-along-able melodies.

5. After Laughter – Paramore

I’ll admit I sort of lost interest in Paramore in recent years, despite having been a huge fan during their Riot! days – which set me up to go into After Laughter with little to no expectations. I wasn’t expecting an album full of such catchy, 80s-influenced tracks that there were days I literally couldn’t stop listening to it. It’s nice to have Paramore back in my recently played and I hope they continue this new sound for their next album.

4. All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell – Pvris

This one definitely grew on me. Pvris has been one of those bands that’s always been on my radar but never in my recently played – but they were there for most of the summer and fall. The band’s second full-length has a consistent vibe that balances heavy vs. calm and brooding vs. hopeful, with really impressive vocals from frontwoman Lynn Gunn.

3. Life After Youth – Land of Talk

Earlier this year I saw an article on CBC Music about indie band Land of Talk’s vocalist and songwriter, Elizabeth Powell, talking about writing her new album in my hometown of Orillia. This immediately caught my attention and I gave the album a shot – and have been listening to it weekly ever since. Her mesmerizing vocals soar over punchy rhythms throughout this short-but-sweet album, and, in the track Inner Lover, repeat possibly my favourite lyric of the year: “You light it slowly / Your light is lonely.”

2. Waiting for Morning to Come – Being as an Ocean

It’s always cool to see bands who’ve found success in the metalcore/hardcore scenes experiment with new (and usually slower) sounds. Sometimes it’s hit or miss, as they risk both losing fans and losing the emotion found in their heavier music. But this new experimental album by Being as an Ocean is definitely a hit – and despite an overall slowler sound, it’s an even more emotional album than their previous work.

1. Dissolve – Tusks

If you missed my review of this album, let me sum it up for you: London singer/songwriter/producer Emily Underhill (aka Tusks) has put together a cinematic and chilling album, with simply beautiful vocals, creative instrumentation/production and my most listened-to tracks of 2017.

Honorable mentions: A Deeper Understanding – The War on Drugs, Truth is a Beautiful Thing – London Grammar, Fool’s Paradise – Cold Specks, Young Mopes – Louise Burns, The Love You Let Too Close – Thousand Below

Album Review: Dissolve - Tusks

I’ve been following the music UK singer/songwriter Emily Underhill has been releasing under the name Tusks for a few years now and finally her full-length debut is out – and my only complaint is that it just isn’t long enough. But luckily this is a classic case of quality over quantity.

The ten tracks of Dissolve are an emotional journey of love, loss and growth – told over chilling, atmospheric soundscapes and within epic, wall-of-sound guitars. With how deeply personal these lyrics are it makes sense that Tusks’ vocals are either far back in the mix, hidden shyly in reverb or up close and intimate, in a fragile, baring-her-soul kind of way. Either technique sounds haunting, tying to the texture of the music seamlessly.

“Cinematic” is the word that keeps coming to mind when trying to describe the music. Like a film score, it’s epic when it needs to be – with crashing drums and larger-than-life guitars – and soft and calming when it needs to be – with electronic atmospheres and haunting pianos. It’s the type of album that’s best listened to with headphones on and eyes closed, letting the music take you somewhere else.

The title track is a perfect example of Tusks’ creative mixture of epic and intimate:

Another standout is the closing track, a cover of Foals’ London Thunder:

Top 10 Albums of 2015

10. Peripheral Vision - Turnover

9. The Youth to Become - Stories

8. Vitals - MuteMath

7. How Big How Blue How Beautiful - Florence + The Machine

6. Delirium - Ellie Goulding

5. New Bermuda - Deafheaven

4. Emotion - Carly Rae Jepson

3. Deep in the Iris - Braids

2. Art Angels - Grimes

1. To Pimp a Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar

Top 10 Albums of 2014

10. Run The Jewels 2 - Run The Jewels

9. Cavity - Hundred Waters

8. The Night God Slept - Silent Planet

7. Cilvia Demo - Isaiah Rashad

6. Lost Forever // Lost Together - Architects

5. Singles - Future Islands

4. I Forget Where We Were - Ben Howard

3. LP1 - FKA twigs

2. "What is this Heart?" - How To Dress Well

1. Ixora - Copeland