I love compilation albums, SXSW, live recordings and serious music. So it’s no surprise that I would love New Media Recordings‘ Selections from NMR Live! Showcase SXSW, which combines all of the aforementioned. NMR is a recording studio and production facility in Fort Worth, Texas, and it shows: this live recording is impressively captured and preserved. So those who hate live recordings for the bad sound quality, fear not.
On to the music: NMR has given us 25 songs from 8 bands spread over an hour and a half. It’s not one-sitting listening. However, it is a good introduction to these artists, as each gets more than the usual single shot to tell their story. Spooky Folk opens the comp with “Polaroid,” which is one of the loudest tunes on the album (and subsequently one of the most difficult to mix – so take my previous note on “impressively captured” with a grain of salt on this track) by easily the loudest of the bands featured. “Polaroid” has an Arcade Fire-esque grandeur, as charging guitars and pounding drums are met with soaring vocals and swooping strings. It’s a great song to kick off the album with, as it sets a high bar for quality.
Most of the other bands meet the challenge. The bulk of the music on the comp is of the serious singer/songwriter type: a Damien Jurado song is fittingly covered, and I thought several times of stately anguish of Songs:Ohia throughout. Jeremy Buller, who played the aformentioned “Oh Death Art With Me” cover, plays especially powerfully on these recordings: The intimate “A Gift and Growing It” creates a gripping mood and expounds on it for six minutes. His “Untitled” is even more sparse, but no less riveting in its mood.
You may remember that I love everything about The Angelus. They contribute stripped-down versions of their dark, foreboding tunes; instead of acoustic guitar only, it’s electric guitar and voice. It fits incredibly well for the Angelus’ tunes while showing a whole new side of the tunes.
Don and Curtis of The Theater Fire, The Migrant, and Clint Niosi contribute more upbeat, often-major-key tunes, but these are by no means throwaway pop songs. The Theater Fire members created a storytellers’ mood to spin tales about life from Cain’s perspective, the thought processes of a rebellious rambler, and a Magnetic Fields cover (“All My Little Words”). The Migrant’s tunes are imported with weight through the vocal performances and lyrics more so than the acoustic guitar work–another line drawn to Jurado. Clint Niosi’s clear vocals and precise picking (“Wild West”) nearest appropriated what we consider folk these days.
The electronic music wild a capella music of Dreamboat Crusaderz and the ominous constructions of Weird Weeds didn’t catch my ear, but six out of eight on a comp is a high success rate. The creators of Selections from NMR Live! Showcase SXSW have a well-tuned ear, and this release is very worth your time if you’re into the genre.
“Shenandoah” is one of the songs that sparked my love of folk music, so I’m always up for new versions of it. The tune received an elegant, reverent treatment in sound and video here, as Goldmund and Alex R. Johnson (La Chima Films) teamed up to create a beautiful rendition of the Appalachian standard.
The enigmatic video for Exitmusic’s “Passage” sets up an engrossing mood with an inscrutable but intriguing storyline and beautiful visuals. I couldn’t look away.
The eerie, evocative clip for The Angelus’ “Crimson Shadow” is similarly riveting. Jake Wilganowski’s confident direction and gorgeous cinematography meet the tune perfectly, and the result is a powerful piece.
Hoodie Allen’s second video from All American pairs the pensive “No Faith in Brooklyn” with a clip that matches the mood.
Angelus means “Angel” in Latin, but indie-rockers The Angelus apply more to the terrifying, battle-ready archangel idea than the calming, peaceful messenger motif that is common in our culture. I’m not often scared by music, but the pervasive sense of dread and woe that runs through On a Dark & Barren Land creates some profoundly disorienting and distressing moments.
Emil Rapstine, the songwriter behind The Angelus, is a master of mood: using nothing more than harmonized voices, he can conjure up a profound sense of discomfort (“Let Me Be Gone,” “All Is Well,” where nothing sounds well at all). Add in a tasteful restraint on the arrangements of these dark, gritty dirges, and you’ve got an album that will stick with the listener long after the run time. “Turned To Stone” segues a plodding intro into an indie-rock tune anchored by organ, choir bells, and massively overdriven guitar. Just imagining that should bring up thoughts of The Misfits or Godspeed! You Black Emperor, and it is assuredly more of the latter. “Gone Country” sounds like a doom-thousand The National, while the frantic bass work on “Crimson Shadow” lends an urgency to the tune that jars against the slowed-down guitarwork.
I made the mistake of listening to this last night in the dark by myself, and a sense of dread creeped over me as I read my book. If the goal of all music is emotional connection, The Angelus has succeeded mightily. (Even the album art is darkly fascinating, entering into my best of the year list.) Fans of The Black Heart Processional, darkly atmospheric post-rock, or genuinely creepy music would do well to catch up with On a Dark & Barren Land.
The Angelus is an ambient band that pulls its weight in the music world very well. Its straightforward approach to their music makes The Angelus sound very experienced and confident in their music. The Angelus’ self titled album simply has 5 songs that average around 6 minutes apiece of solid ambient music.
Starting off, The Angelus appears as another average-grade ambient band not quite cutting it. But quickly, the band cuts ties from the average and shows itself to be something very special. The selected instruments of this band are guitar, bass, drums, bells, E-bow, keyboard, and a great set of vocalists. No instrument stands out among the rest, so it is only fair to talk about them as a whole. The guitar, bass, and drum set up are average, but the approach with the bells and keyboard add more feeling and power to every song. Their vocals are well placed and bind the instruments to the emotion trying to be conveyed. The lyrics are articulate poems placed strategically throughout every song with care. The ringing of the bells, on top of bold lyrics and vocals, make this band’s music come to life.
It is very hard to find flaws in an album that so much time was clearly placed in. The only complaint many fans of great ambience will have with this album is the lack of tracks and the feeling of wanting more! The Angelus is a clear cut above the rest- their album is solid ambient that fans of the genre need to check out for themselves.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.