January 3, 2012

Vital Albums: Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite

Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite by Parisian collective FareWell Poetry is one of the more absorbing musical journeys of 2011. It is also an album that wears its ambition on its sleeve. A Super 8/16mm black and white film on DVD (trailer here), filled with images of compulsive self-absorption and erotic obsession (warning: nudity), accompanies the 20 minute opening piece, and there’s also an iPhone app to go alongside both. The lyrics take the form of extravagant spoken-word poetry boasting a lofty lineage:

‘As True As Troilus’ takes its title and mythology from Chaucer’s important 14th century poem ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, a retelling of a ‘faux’ Greek myth with Medieval origins, in which the main protagonist Troilus falls in love with Trojan Cressida who finally deceives and leaves him for the Greek soldier Diomedes. The narrator of ‘As True As Troilus’ (just as Chaucer’s narrator) uses this myth to explore his own romantic mythology, using the characters and their situation to recount his own plight, illustrating the destruction of his own failed relationship with tableaux from the Trojan tale.

Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, which portrays the same doomed love affair, also plays a role, and Ovid is cited in the film. Described on the band’s site as a “bold and electrifying project,” we are left in no doubt that this is a work of substance.

This much ambition can backfire, and there were on first listen moments when I was left feeling that the earnest cadences were trying a little too hard to assure me that I was listening to Very Deep And Important Poetry. However, the readings grow in power with subsequent listens. Allow yourself to be drawn in and a compelling musical journey awaits. You can stream the album below as you read, courtesy of the band’s webpage.

The dominant style is a kind of avant-garde, minimalist post-rock with ambient touches. Add FareWell Poetry to bands such as Kwoon and MØN and it seems as if a chunk of the most interesting post-rock is coming from Paris these days. There are clear affinities with the compositions of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. One thing that set the best GYBE epics apart from the rest of the post-rock fold was the sense of storytelling, a sense created not just from the long arcs of build and release central to the genre, but from the field recordings and spoken word passages that anchored the sweeping sonic landscapes in personal biographies and glimpses of human hopes and fears. These fragile fragments of sonic portraiture were in turn elevated to a widescreen treatment by the expansive instrumental journeys that accompanied them. FareWell Poetry’s debut release comes closer than anything else I’ve heard to both carrying forward what was exciting about those GYBE stories-in-sound and adding its own distinctive contribution.

GYBE’s political edge is absent here; the emphasis is more psychological, even psychoanalytic. The opening track, ‘As True as Troilus’, opens with 14 minutes of emotionally estranged poetic narrative, written and performed by poet/filmmaker Jayne Amara Ross. It is accompanied by a slow, tense burn of guitar groans and ambient sounds. Perhaps referencing the appeal that Shakespeare’s Troilus makes to conventional lovers’ similes (“rhymes,/Full of protest, of oath and big compare”) before parading “true as Troilus” as the new standard of faithfulness, the track opens with its own lurid web of similes. They trace the anguish of a passion betrayed by both the other’s unfaithfulness and one’s own willing self-deception. The narrator’s lover has left, and dogged faithfulness turns cold and despairing, “dwarfed in not knowing why”. Former hopes now “suck at my bowels, like mice”. Dreams of things being different quickly circle back to the inauspicious beginnings of the relationship, its beginnings suggesting both love and possession, both desire and denial. The narrator speaks wistfully of being “in dreams airlifted out”, yet the film shows only racing fingers compulsively knotting a fragile rope ladder out of string and matches. As the emotional furies swirl, the music continues to build, and the emerging melody, after tense ebbs and flows, finally erupts in a powerful guitar-led maelstrom.

The second and third tracks are parts 1 and 2 of a second epic, titled ‘All in the Full, Indomitable Light of Hope.’ There is little hope to be found in the first part. Barely audible ambient drones and creaking strings create a bleak, windswept effect that drifts into sad melody. The narrator returns in more pensive mode – the initial storm is exhausted, “life finds its way back to me,” and the possibility of hope is painfully raised. Part 2 risks evoking the lazy reviewer comment that “it’s been done before by [insert name of post-rock band]” (ironically itself a tired cliché). It opens with melodious guitar and gentle chimes, then proceeds through gently repeating figures into tremolo passages as percussion builds, and the song climaxes in a glorious swell of hope. The structure is indeed familiar (though gorgeously done), but the interesting thing is not whether we have heard these sounds before, but rather what is being done with them here.

As the guitars die away into more dissonant feedback and scraping strings, the narrator returns with a complex determination, more elegiac than triumphant, to “dance the old dance in new footwear.” With hope, however, so also “darkness finds its way back to me.” It’s as if the narrator wishes that life were a conventionally ascending post-rock triumph, but needs to keep hope honest. It is telling that here the spoken word is kept separate from the melodic sections, tied to the bleaker opening and conclusion, as if self and hope are still in conversation. The sweet, soaring hope of the guitars is now more complex, real (“But I have love!”), yet precarious. This pair of tracks ends with the couplet “And there is no one time too many,/And there are no redundant prayers”. In what is to my ear one of the most effective vocal moments on the album, a modulation of the voice on the final word reframes these lines with a fragile, questioning note, as if saying “there are no redundant prayers…are there? Please tell me there aren’t?”

The final track, brief but poignant, draws the threads together. The title, ‘In Dreams Airlifted Out’, picks up a line from the earlier lyric, and the melody also is drawn from ‘True as Troilus’. In the first track the narrator had wished “to be a pianist/and hunger at the keys,” to “hammer out my own truth, weave a sharp confession, my knuckles chiming over the launch pad like church bells.” This closing track opens with a church bell – not celebratory, but solemnly chiming the hour. The melody appears at first in the naively chiming notes of a music box (hope!), before being picked up by an out-of-tune piano. After a few bars, a floating electronic interlude shifts us to an ethereal dream world, then the piano melody returns, moving into a higher register, but with an accompanying dark, low rumble.

The album thus ends on a marvelously nuanced note, a chastened, cracked, but sweet and real hope still in conversation with pain and despair, struggling to flower out of hurt, still seeking a foundation that might ground the continuing possibility of love. It is a fitting conclusion to a narrative that has wrestled so elementally with whether faithfulness can salvage denial, whether hope can survive betrayal, whether confession can heal, whether prayers are still meaningful, whether there is a way beyond the string-and-matches ladder of one passion tied in series to the next. The album is far more honest than most pop music about the price of careless eros, and as a result the tenuously determined thread of hope reaches for something more than glib optimism.

This review is already long enough to test patience, though there is much more that could be said – all of it, like the above, just my interpretation of the work. Suffice it to say that this is an important album, indeed a “bold and electrifying project.” In terms of emotional and lyrical complexity, this is streets ahead of most other post-rock releases, and the music is carefully and effectively married to the poetry, demanding serious attention and rewarding with articulate depth. Listen with care.

Filed under Analysis and Opinion, Experimental, Post-Rock, Reviews, Vital Albums