SHADOWPLAY – A Post-Punk, Darkwave Overview – The Agnes Circle “Modern Ideas” EP, Hemgraven “Sanddyner Av Glas,” Population “Beyond The Pale”

The Agnes Circle / Hemgraven / Population
Modern Idea EP / Sanddyner Av Glas / Beyond the Pale
End Result Records / Peter Out Records / Mass Media

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agnes circle cover

For all the explosive growth in what might be called the post-punk cottage industry around the world – so coined due the prevalence of small label/DIY/Bandcamp energy at its core – it’s a little surprising that little of that resurgence is arising from what’s ostensibly the genre’s birthplace, the UK. Beyond notable outbreaks in Leeds, led by Eagulls, and Brighton (Tense Men et al), or taking into consideration Dublin’s Girls Names switching gears for their second (and soon third) album, and of course Savages’ bristling emergence out of London, Old Blighty’s been a bit of a blighted landscape for all things shadowed, sculpted, and angular these last ten years or so. Enter The Agnes Circle, a London-based duo (Florian Voytek and Rachael Redfern) who, if not exactly meaning to, may just provide the catalyst needed to lure what one assumes are dozens of bands lurking in said shadows up and down the M1, waiting to be drawn out into the open.

Just issued in June on End Result Records, the Modern Idea EP is in many ways exactly what its title implies, a four-song offering that distills the essence of the dark fluorescent sounds saturating the form in 2015 and that echo across the current-day landscape from Russia, through Poland, Spain and the many interlinked enclaves killing it at house shows and tiny clubs across the US, not least here in Portland. Rich with fluid, hauntological basslines that, isolated, would be exactly the sound of being alive and hearing your own blood pumping in your ears at midnight, graced by evocative, sulfurous guitar work that insinuates and accents but never overpowers, drums that might well define the term ‘expressive precision’ and vocals you can wedge into your collection between Dave Vanian and Peter Murphy, what’s perhaps most astonishing is how accomplished and fully-formed a young band like The Agnes Circle come across on their debut.

“Ceramics” leaps out at you with a declarative vigor, drums in unleashed restraint, the tempo lashing, Voytek’s voice roiling as if on a buried wave, the whole thing somehow both understated and hurricane-like. The ruminative, majestic sweep of “Venetian Boy” balances itself on a “Just Like Honey” rhythm pattern as it explores the intriguing perimeter regions percolating beyond the boundaries of “A Forest,” where the atmosphere’s a bit more fraught, the sense of moody menace maybe a little too deceptively gentle while the overall tone subtly fluctuates between sadness and grandeur. Returning to the propulsive, “Sister Flux,” the EP’s highlight if one must be chosen, rides a galloping, chrome-cut guitar track that lends the song the curious, powerful impression of what Sisters of Mercy would sound like after a night spent absorbing the charms of The Church circa Milky Way, which is to say it has an insistent, sonorous glory ringing throughout the center of it and hallelujah for that. Final cut “Yan’an Memory,” meanwhile, boasts a touch of Colin Newman in its intricate, wiry filigree of guitar even as the entirety of the song itself, with its deep bass melodicism and vocals full of faded-day longing, couldn’t more exemplify what, by this point on Modern Idea, you’ll think of ‘the Agnes Circle sound.’

Much of which, by the way, is down to the dark Spectorism of the production/mastering, the recording rather resonant beyond what you would think given the band’s years. All in all a triumph, we’re impressed here at the SEM post-punk desk and are now unreasonably eager for a full-length.

hemgraven cover

Jumping across the North Sea and pushing our way up the Baltic we come to Sweden, Stockholm-by-way-of Sundsvall specifically, home to the somewhat more thunderous Hemgraven. Though not quite as prolific as the Russian post-punk bear to their east, Scandanavia has nonetheless been contributing mightily to the upsurge, especially, or at least most visibly, Denmark, but the land of Saabs and Bergman hasn’t exactly been a slouch, as is proven anew by this roaring, relentless but sufficiently nuanced debut of a 6-track mini-album, released as a cassette last September by Peter Out Records and proving so popular that the label, smartly we feel, issued it on vinyl in March.

As assaults on your senses go, Sanddyner Av Glas (Dunes of Glass; the record, from title through lyrics, is exclusively in Swedish) is an accomplished and therefore pleasurable one, generous with its hooks and joyous in its subarctic darkness. Even as it begins with Jonathan Jonsson’s icy scrape of pick across reverb-soaked guitar string on “Sång Vid En Grav” (“Singing in a Grave”), any sense of discordance or attack is leavened by what we in the biz like to call ‘good old-fashioned songcraft.’ In “Sång”‘s case that means a driving, molten-fluid progression attended by arresting lead bass breaks (Ola Ollson), a shiny serration of guitar tracing alpine patterns across the top, an eerie persistence of keyboard (David Olgarsson) and a melodic vocal line with the type of Nordic authority you’d expect from the words I’ve written so far. As a solitary listening experience – and this holds true for the album entire – the propulsive quickly and inexorably becomes the compulsive.

Though punctuated by feral yelps in its chorus and built on a precision of murderous rhythm, “Överallt, Ingenstans” (“Everywhere, Nowhere”), chromatic guitar tones just this side of ‘chime’ can be heard glinting not far from the surface, the brutal and the brittle making, shall we say, poundingly beautiful music together. Same holds true for “Kains Irrläror” (“Cain’s Heresy”), though the bottom end here is much bottomier with the bass apparently seeking a chthonic audience with Persophone herself while Olgarsson’s vocals, more up in the mix here, hold court with a stentorian grace. The title track, meanwhile, bewitches at its outset with ethereal echo and fog-swept synth before the rhythm section (filled out by drummer Kim-Evert Olofsson) unleashes a one-two punch of tribal propulsion that drives the piece into its own particular primal stratosphere. The record’s lengthiest cut by over a minute at 6:30, the vocals are pure yearn and dream no matter the language while the glass aspect is repped by sheets of crystalline white noise guitar work that elevate the thing into the great halls of singular post-punk epic, a reputation-making beast of the first order.

Elsewhere we’ve the passingly funky rumble of “Ett Annat Sått Att Leva” (“A Different Way of Life”), all no-nonsense and stabbing complexity, and the vaulting yet fiercely direct closer “Arytmi” (“Arrhythmia”) that announces with a call of the wild and never backs down, throbbing forward with a sense of animalistic urge while it gets layered with all the fundaments necessary to ensure memorability, a sustained, slashing momentum straining at the leash, the power at the heart of it glowing in the dark.

Like a surfeit of trapped energy finally released, Sanddyner Av Glas pours itself at your without relent. We suggest you let it and without delay.

population cover

 

Returning to nearer shores without losing an ounce of power, we come to Chicago’s Population, whose full-length debut – after a number of singles and EPs – loomed up on our radar here at SEM six or so months ago (the album was released back in August on Mass Media) in time to make our fifth NEXT list. I’d personally heard of them sooner after they blew through Portland, playing with Arctic Flowers at a gig I regrettably missed but heard rave reports about. A single (“Relic”/”Mourning Dawn”) happened to arrive not too long after that to further prime your correspondent’s expectations and with absolutely no surprise Beyond the Pale at least meets and mostly surpasses said expectations.

In some ways – the astute sonic density, the deep intonation of elemental vocals, themes of epistomological despair rich with history – coming on like a pre-Plowing.. Iceage of the sprawling midwest, broader of palette and inhabiting a greater spaciousness but just as intense in terms of delivery and uncompromising drive, Population emerge from the vast shores of Lake Michigan as one of the most potent and significant bands in this country’s re-arising post-/anarcho-/peace-punk movement.

Evidence overwhelms on Beyond the Pale but let’s focus for a start on the stunner triad of tracks that kicks off side two. “True North” utilizes an unrepentant Joy Divisioned spine to powerful reworked advantage, building on it a body of a song about the test of growing up that hangs with such a hypnotizing and fervent immediacy as to become instantly timeless, full of that meditative dark magic to which we can but helplessly swoon. Doubling the pace, cymbals in constant kinetic nervousness, bass at full prowl and a synth shadowing the outskirts, “On Rubicon” is fraught melodic paranoia personified, Keelan McMorrow’s vocals a kind of steady volcanic howl as the song swirls around him, its sound amounting to a bright pall. “Caesura (Fires of St. John),” with its Stranglers surge, its chopping McGeoch-like rhythm guitar strokes, and just its perfectly crafted restlessness overall, exhibits a sprawling-yet-coiled power that rather guarantees, shall we say, palpitations of post-punk ecstacy.

Now, facile and even unfair though it may be to isolate those three, they’d nevertheless have no trouble carrying this album’s water should they be asked to. Fortunately – and of course – they don’t have to. There’s far more out there beyond the pale, a phrase whose origins, by the way, the LP insert does well to illuminate, seeing as, to no small degree, its true meaning – at its core the fear of otherness that humans have carried with them since their earliest settlements – informs the tenor and texture of this record’s character.

Opening track “Wine of the Lilies” goes from moody eerie to pummelingly epic in forty seconds, skirting some elusive goth shadows along the way. The brief “Pray For Rain” could be a Promethean take on rockabilly, its churning grandeur enough to hide its roots but rocking like hell all the same. “Spears of Silence” uses If I Die, I Die..synths and a folk punk sensibility to root through what may well be the pathos/mythos of the gods, it’s tone epochal, the pace proceeding at a stately, if stirring, dirge. As should be clear by now, Population do in fact traffic in those heavier zones, past the barricades of artifice and into near-operatic regions that border on Hemgraven’s Nordic. “Volkslied” ploughs such dark dramatic furrows one wonders if the song isn’t lifted from a Viking hymnal discovered in some lost encampment unearthed in 1980. It’s like black metal minus the bile and injected with invincible melody (not to mention intelligible lyrics, doom-laden though they may be).

By the time Beyond the Pale ends with the corrugated charge of “City of Dead,” its final, short linger of sustain suspended in the air, metallic and desolate – the track showing without doubt that the band’s pairing with Arctic Flowers a couple years back was indeed an act of aesthetic destiny – you’ll be a bit astonished by the mix of might and dexterity you’ve just lived through. According to Thomas Malthus, “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio,” and, well, we here at SEM can only hope the old catastrophist was right.