This recent release floats up out of a yawning gap, so let’s back up the story a little for anyone who lost the thread. 1 Mile North’s first album, Glass Wars, was a collection of pretty guitar cogitations a little reminiscent in places of some of the quieter moments on How Strange Innocence, the first album by Explosions in the Sky from a year earlier. At the time it was one of quite a few of its kind floating around at the gently lyrical end of the post-rock spectrum. It was the second album, Minor Shadows, released two years later in 2003, that made me sit up and take notice. While somewhat similar in feel to its predecessor, it achieved an increased tautness and sense of purpose and space, moving deftly from sparse beauty to wistful, melancholy drift to occasional pockets of darkness. It did not sound quite like any of its rivals, and it remains one of my most-returned-to albums from the post-rock binge that filled a chunk of my hard drive around that time. It’s a lonely, fragile, contemplative work, and the haunting opener “In 1983 he loved to fly” is to my ear perhaps its finest moment.
Apart from a split release a year later, that, was it. Thirteen years is a long time between album releases. It’s a testimony to the impression that Minor Shadows made on me that I was still keeping an eye out every now and then to see if anything else might emerge. Late in 2016, a new album finally appeared, titled Awakened by Decay and available on vinyl and digitally. This was interesting news, and I approached it with high hopes.
First impression: the minor shadows have become pools of darkness. The cover art is darker. The title leaves me wondering whether it alludes to fading musical notes or to awareness of the approaching end of life. The track titles circle around dark expanses, separations, absences. And yes, the music too is darker in hue, though without letting go of an underlying warmth carried by the silkily melodic phrases. It feels dark but not too bleak, like dark chocolate. The sense of profound patience and taut restraint is still there, there is still the atmospheric, almost hypnotic meditation on a few select notes. Yet where the earlier material often sounds to me like the attenuated air of wild open spaces, the new album, while firmly in the vein of the earlier material, feels more claustrophobic. The drones that accompany the plaintive guitar meditations are a touch heavier and more insistent, creating a tense undercurrent that tugs at the fragments of melody from beneath.
A comparison that comes to mind is late-period Labradford (that’s a huge compliment, by the way). The palette is sparse: a plangent guitar mutters phrases to itself, drones fill the air around it with a brooding mist, occasional languid percussion and piano add mesmerizing forward motion, a couple of snatches of spoken text drift by. The tracks are held together not so much by melody or dramatic arc as by the sheer tautness of the atmosphere in which they lazily swim. At some points I wonder if this is not so much music characterized by moodiness as moodiness distilled into aural form. It is music that asks a fair bit of the listener, calling for a contemplative patience, a willingness to languish in the slowly unfurling sounds, absorbed in the slowly swaying motion of the journey rather than expecting to be dazzled by any sudden landmarks along the way. A key test for this kind of thing is whether it can maintain the tension, avoid breaking the spell. It does not quite manage that equally strongly across the whole album to my ear—I have my favorite tracks—but there is a remarkable consistency of tone, with enough variety to hold my attention and nudge me onward. You won’t be humming it any time afterwards, but you might just get drawn into its rich, thick textures and meditative lyricism, and if you do, you’ll be glad you went along for the ride. Here’s hoping it’s not 13 years until the next installment.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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