This album is in my blood. I can feel its pulsing from somewhere deep inside my chest and its careening rush out to my extremities. It has saturated my morning walks to work, my afternoon returns, and my evening relaxations for almost a week now, and I see no signs of its tyranny abating any time soon. This is a rarity my friends, and it feels frightening and good all at the same time.
I heard of O’Brother years ago and I remember checking out their EP, The Death of Day, some time in 2010. I liked it, but it didn’t stick. It was out of rotation fairly quickly and I forgot about it completely by the time Garden Window was released in 2011. Now, here I am a year later, and I am severely regretting showing up late for the party. O’Brother, I apologize for my tardiness. This album is musically profound, mixing dark and heavy guitars with ethereal ambience, indie sparkle with screeching feedback, and wailing vocals with resonating philosophical lyrics.
The album comes to life with ‘Malum,’ a distorted incantation that sets the stage for a bleak journey into a world forsaken by God. It sounds like the lovechild of a tribal chieftain and a distortion pedal. The pace is slow and deliberate with an ingenious drumbeat composed of accents from the bass drum and flourishes of energy from the clacking of sticks. With Tanner Merritt howling in a partially distorted cry over purposeful chanting, the vocals convey distress and frustration while sounding strangely akin to worship. This tone is clearly intentional, as the primary theme of the album is the struggle to understand abandonment by God. As a godless heathen, I frequently find myself distanced by overtly religious lyrics, but the high degree of very human emotion that these divine issues have brought forth in O’Brother has been absolutely captivating.
In fact, what I enjoy the most about the album is its turmoil. Many of the darkest songs are juxtaposed to songs about resilience and keeping faith. The opening three songs are one such grouping as ‘Malum’s’ inarticulate melancholy gives way to ‘Lo,’ a quicker paced and lighter song that seeks to explain the speaker’s vexation in brilliantly shaped lines: “So we could laugh and sit and talk until I wanted to see / What sort of knowledge had grown from your forbidden seed (…) Your garden reminds us of our fleeting lives.” And just as you are ready to storm back into Eden, ‘Sputnik’ steps forth and rebukes you for your insolence with sharp triplets from the guitar and sharper lyrics: “If you would just rather sit, sucking the ground / Then stay down, stay down brother, stay down.” The battle continues as the driving chorus ploughs through, stating, “You just left us tending, well you ought to have stayed.” With such dramatic shifts in tone it’s hard to believe that this song is only 2:50 long.
A similar contrast in tone is found on tracks seven and eight, ‘Machines, Pt.1’ and ‘Machines, Pt. 2.’ The first half of this dynamic duo is aggressive and shows the clear influence of post-hardcore acts like Thrice as syncopated drums and shifting time signatures create a tangible sense of distress. This sentiment is echoed by petulant lyrics: “All this work, all this progress, is fine if you wanted it / I should have figured that this would be happening now.” Part 2 reacts with remorse as Radiohead inspired arpeggios play host to Merritt’s sullen vocals proclaiming, “I’ll lay all my anger aside / If you’ll give me a sign.” The vulnerability soon gives way to bluesy guitar solos and crashing cymbals, making it clear that the anger is still very much alive.
Garden Window is not all pounding and yelling. Some of the most memorable tracks on the album are exceedingly soft. ‘Easy Talk (Open Your Mouth)’ and the closer, ‘Last Breath,’ in particular, show that O’Brother could very easily stick to the ambient dreamworlds inspired by Radiohead and Sigur Ros. What makes O’Brother different, and what has allowed them the intravenous hold that they currently have on me, is that they are not a mere reproduction of these bands. Hundreds, if not thousands, of bands have tried to be Radiohead, but none have ever captured the ethereal sound that Thom and Co are so good at while merging it with the energy and urgency produced by post-hardcore and metal acts. That O’Brother has done this without sounding artificial or piecemeal is astonishing. That the lyrics are as good as the music is even more so.
Although Garden Window does many things exceedingly well, it is not without flaw. At times, the album suffers from what I call “progressive epic syndrome.” This is the tendency that progressive and experimental bands have to make songs unnecessarily long in an attempt to make them sound epic through their sheer size (The Mars Volta, I’m talking to you). Luckily for O’Brother, the disease is fairly isolated on this album. While ‘Easy Talk,’ ‘Poison!,’ ‘Bear,’ ‘Cleanse Me,’ and ‘Last Breath,’ all clock in at over 6:00, most of them cope with their lengths fairly well.
In fact, ‘Cleanse Me,’ which clocks in at a whopping 13:59, is a contender for best song on the album. This song is fantastically layered. Driving rhythm guitar, echoed vocals, sparse but precise lead guitar, and strategic swells of feedback make the opening 3:12 of this song worth a listen on their own, but the real magic is the musical explosion that follows it. As the phrase “I will be heard / Every last word will have its turn” is sung with countless harmonies giving it colour and weight, the guitars and rhythm section get out of the way, providing accents without taking away from the beauty of the vocals. It is executed brilliantly. This is followed by an outcry of anger which features the only full-throated screaming on the album. It is gone almost as quickly as it came, and the song slowly winds down into almost four minutes of twinkling electric and acoustic guitars, church bells, and whispered vocals. The song comes to a conclusion with the return of heavy rhythms, vocal harmonies and screaming that brings the song to a satisfying climax.
‘Poison!’ and ‘Bear,’ though decent songs, linger on some ideas for longer than seems necessary. But when the worst thing that can be said about your garden is that it needs some trimming, you are in a pretty damn good place.
Let me take a minute to make something clear: I love Garden Window, but I do not think it is perfect. The reason that this album has me taking cold showers is because it is a breath of life into a dying scene. With Thrice and Thursday throwing in the towels, the post-hardcore scene that I fell in love with has started to die. Bands like Brand New and Manchester Orchestra are still kicking while new acts like Moving Mountains and The Republic of Wolves are turning out interesting material, but it is Garden Window that gives me hope. This is an evolution of the sound rather than a strong outing in familiar territory. I don’t know what the future holds but the view through this window is promising.
Rating: O’Brother gives us a look at the future.