Review: Woods of Desolation – As the Stars


Has it really been two years since I’ve reviewed a new album? The fact came as a bit of surprise, but here it is late October and I’m staring at a massive horde of 2014 releases that I’ve barely cracked. I was a bit more diligent about keeping up with these when I actually took the time to write about them!

I hope to jump back into this business in force, but in case I fail, I’ll not put off the cream of the crop. My album collection is starting to get overrun by “Woods of” X artists; it seems to be the most popular black metal prefix after “Dark” these days. But one among them might be destined to distinguish itself with my #1 album of the year pick.

Woods of Desolation – Unfold, from As the Stars

I spent a great deal of my late teens and early 20s basking in the polarizing glories of post-rock and black metal. The likes of Explosions in the Sky, Sigur Rós, Emperor, and Nokturnal Mortum pumped the residual poison of rock and roll out of my blood and raised me to higher expectations of musical fulfillment. I listened to them not with a care for technical precision or physical skill, but in search of an experience I did not fully understand. Both genres approached this through similar means, but fell short as social stigmata demanded modesty or brutality carry the day. As I grew into an adult, the ice was broken. Neige’s Le Secret whispered its meaning into my ears just as I was old enough to embrace it. He’d broken the Berlin wall of music, and what awaited beyond was strange and beautiful.

Post-black metal, shoegaze metal, “transcendental”, call it what you will. Ten years ago, this album–what the woefully uninformed all-purpose reviewers will write off as a Deafheaven copycat–was not possible. It emerged as many musicians with the same thoughts and greater talent than myself caught glimpse of that beautiful beyond and embraced it. You can name a dozen artists that might have influenced the Australian solo project known as Woods of Desolation, but this brave new genre demands our presence in the here and now. It calls on us to bask in glorious tremolo sweeps triumphant over entwined barricades of light and darkness. “Proud to be living in the echo–the mist of all things combined,” Krallice once wrote, and though they designed to crush it, we retain the luxury to return. When I hear a song this triumphant, that line always comes to me, and the albums that accomplish it are still few and far between. I still love Explosions in the Sky and their ilk, but they offer a different sort of grandeur. Theirs is an experience of climbing to the peak. Songs like “Unfold” allow us to explore the pinnacle at length, from start to finish.

Woods of Desolation – Like Falling Leaves, from As the Stars

To start at the summit and know where you stand. That might be post-black metal in a nutshell. What we can do there… that is still an on-going exploration. Where Liturgy and Primordial roar like lions into the jaws of death, “Like Falling Leaves” is something of the opposite. It accepts the end awaiting it. In this track we don’t hear any of the overarching optimism of “Unfold”. Instead, we’re accepting that something dear is gone forever, and we are held fast in that moment of realizing the fact’s finality. The bulk of the album seems in keeping with these two vibes, sometimes heightened, sometimes subdued, sometimes entwined. “Withering Fields” and “And If All the Stars Faded Away” seem peculiarly triumphant and longing simultaneously, while “Ad Infinitum” is pretty enough for a new Alcest album. Nearly every track bears a sufficiently memorable hook to sound familiar by the second or third play through, and at a mere 35 minutes, it does not waste much time dragging out build-up in between.

I don’t know that As the Stars will retain my #1 spot through the end of the year, especially if I start to pump out album reviews in force again. It is nothing remotely on par with my picks for the last three years, and it suffers from muddy production that can’t always do the song writing justice, but I stand by it as my favorite so far. This is one I’ll keep near and dear to me long after the bulk of my 2014 collection has been forgotten.

Ten Years #47: Explosions in the Sky


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
47. Explosions in the Sky (647 plays)
Top track (93 plays): Memorial, from The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place (2003)
Featured track: Your Hand in Mine, from The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place (2003)

f#a#oo and Ágætis Byrjun might constitute my first introductions into the diverse world of sound we generalize as post-rock, but Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sigur Rós both forged unique paths that few if any bands have successfully replicated. When I think of the quintessential sound I associate with the genre, it’s Explosions in the Sky and Mono that first come to mind. (And Isis, for the genre’s metal variant.) I don’t know that any band has so successfully perfected the build-up to explosion formula without ever delving into metal as these guys. (The featured track here accomplishes this in a particularly subtle manner.)

While Memorial is my most played track, I don’t consider it my favorite. That title more rightly belongs to Your Hand in Mine. Their level of quality is so consistent though that nearly any track could have incidentally topped my play chart. Another thing I’ve always found so compelling about these guys is their knack for appropriate titles. This extends beyond a band name that perfectly captures their sound and the most pleasantly optimistic album title I have ever encountered. (The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place) Their track titles casually reach for the stars, predicting an overload of emotion and imagery that the songs themselves never fail to deliver. It’s amazing how much “A Poor Man’s Memory” and “First Breath After Coma” are enhanced by four simple words. “The Birth and Death of Day” practically names itself. More than any band I have encountered save perhaps Krallice, Explosions in the Sky have mastered the art of employing language as a descriptive subtitle to the thoughts and experiences they directly express through sound. The absurdity of this for Explosions is that they achieve it while remaining an exclusively instrumental band.

Ten Bands You Ought to Experience Live


Having seen 263 different bands live, and a good many of those more than once, I offer you a top 10 list based on ample experience. Oh there might be better live bands out there, but mark my words, these guys are among the very best.


10. Sunn O)))
1 time: 20090917
Recommended album: Black One, or their collaboration with Boris: Altar
Sunn O))) is what happens when an ancient mystery cult encounters electricity. This is probably the closest you can get in this day and age to a true pagan spiritual experience. This is amplifier worship in the literal sense.


9. The Mountain Goats
1 time: 20061029
No Children off of Tallahassee
Recommended album: All Hail West Texas
A funny looking man picks up an acoustic guitar and starts singing you a story about two young lads named Jeff and Cyrus. As the painfully awkward lyrics inform you of their botched efforts to form a metal band, accusing society’s lack of tolerance for holding their dreams at bay, you really start to wonder whether you should cheer the guy on or steal his lunch money. Then the story reaches its conclusion with a chorus of “Hail Satan! Hail Satan tonight!”, everyone in the audience is singing along, and you at last realize that it doesn’t really matter whether you understand the guy or not. This is delightful. If you bother to dig around a little, read more of the lyrics, catch the references here and there, you’ll come to find that John Darnielle absolutely “gets it”. The joke was on you. But it was a clever innocent joke, because everything this guy writes is just as honest as it is intentionally comical. Show up, sing along, listen to his stories, walk away smiling.


8. Týr
2 times: 20080516, 20080517
Hail to the Hammer off of various albums
Recommended album: Eric the Red
“Viking metal” is as much an ethos as a musical style. Indeed, I hesitate to label any but the most undeniable bands “viking”, as opposed to “folk” or “pagan”. But in Týr we find the true third generation of the genre, following Bathory and Falkenbach, with whom they share little stylistically save a knack for writing anthemic heavy metal pagan hymns. I never got into Týr much until I saw them live, but was impressed by their great vocal harmonies, trance-like song progressions, and most notably the confidence with which they could hold the stage even when singing a cappella. By the end of the night I was making arrangements to drive three hours away to see them again.


7. Cracker
3 times: 20060614, 20071031, 20090527
St. Cajetan off of Cracker
Recommended album: Garage D’Or best of compilation
Cracker are the most underrated band of the last 20 years. I’ve been a fan since Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now) and Low were radio staples in the early 90s, but when I finally saw them live for the first time in 2006, I was blown away by their energetic stage presence. Johnny Hickman is a rock guitar guru, blending the established melodies with bluesy improvisations that at no point feel forced. David Lowery, nearly 50, rocks out harder than most younger musicians today. You’ll show up with limited hopes of tapping your feet to a few old familiar songs and discover a band that ranges from head-banging rock to slow tongue-in-cheek ballads to plodding blues-worship masterpieces.


6. Explosions in the Sky
1 time: 20070429
Your Hand in Mine off of The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place
Recommended album: The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place
The name says it all. Granted I saw them main stage at Coachella on a sound system set to support Rage Against the Machine’s first gig in nearly a decade, I have to imagine their music completely encompasses any venue. Explosions in the Sky write songs so compelling that you will completely forget you’re at a gig. The music penetrates everything in its vicinity and thrusts itself into you so forcefully that no amount of distractions will diminish the experience.


5. The Decemberists
4 times: 20040627, 20040628, 20061024, 20090814
excerpt from The Hazards of Love
Recommended album: The Crane Wife
The Decemberists have evolved from a thoroughly entertaining sideshow into a complex, operatic experience, without losing track of their original nature. Last time I saw them they performed the Hazards of Love rock opera in its hour long entirety without breaks, then returned for a good half hour of interactive fun. Audience participation is required, but hard to resist when they’re marching up and down the aisles in parade, awkwardly yanking people out of their seats to perform weird skits set to their older songs.


4. Boris
3 times: 20070316, 20071019, 20080629
Farewell off of Pink
Recommended album: Akuma No Uta
A youtube comment for this video described Farewell as “probably the greatest sludge ballad of all time”. Remember that feeling of disintegrating into the world that you got the first time you listened to Converge’s “Jane Doe” or Explosions in the Sky’s “The Birth and Death of Day”? A video of Boris can’t possibly do them justice. The shear volume of sound is their most distinguishable characteristic. On songs like “Farewell” it will disolve you. On songs like “My Neighbor Satan” it will implode you. On songs like “Naki Kyoku” it will chill you out in a mellow bliss.


3. GWAR
5 times: 20060723, 20061124, 20070707, 20071006, 20090923
Womb with a View off of War Party
Recommended album: Beyond Hell
Ever seen a man in a pig suit get a spear jammed up his ass and split out the top of his spine? Ever get soaked in the blood and puss launching forth from the gaping wound, while a monster with a three foot dick sings about raping your girlfriend and feeding her to bears? …What, that doesn’t sound fun? Everyone should see GWAR live at least once. You will either become a cult follower or start going to church more.


2. Dropkick Murphys
3 times: 20070913, 20080307, 20090629
Kiss Me, I’m Shitfaced off of Blackout
Recommended album: The Meanest of Times
If you’ve ever drank a beer and liked it, you are a Dropkick Murphys fan. Their gigs are more like giant parties… Well, parties with bagpipes and Guinness.


1. Blind Guardian
2 times: 20061210, 20061211
Mirror Mirror off of Nightfall in Middle-Earth
Recommended album: NiME or A Night at the Opera
Hansi Kursch is the King of the Nerds, and we must give our worthy sage the rightful placement he deserves. What happens when you combine Iron Maiden stage presence with the most epic melodies ever written and lyrics about the Dark Lord Sauron? Click and see my friend. Click and see.