SHADOWPLAY: A Post-Punk, Dark Wave Overview – The Tower of Light “The Tower of Light,” Scattered Bodies “Talking Songs”

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TTOL cover

Though purely unscientific, the view here is that relatively reclusive artists have the coolest dreams, which is to say the most vivid, most emotionally kaleidoscopic, often most disturbing. To corroborate look to the exquisitely wounded pining of Emily Dickinson, look to the panoramic, almost paranormal socio-neurotic vastness of Marcel Proust. Closer to home and heart, look at Scott Walker, conjuring monstrous sonic tapestries of unimaginable density and grace from the dark manna of his soul. They create regularly from places most of us seldom reach, withdrawing themselves, as if within some kind of bathysphere of the imagination, to minds inside their minds, producing work from rooms hidden within rooms, warrens of their own making. They may at times walk amongst us, pop down to the shops or catch an occasional show, but they are, in truth – and paradoxically – well beyond us from a place deep inside.

By most measures an admitted shut-in, if not yet an ascetic of Walkerian dimensions, the nonetheless mysterious Brooklynite (by way of Detroit) musician/producer The Tower of Light goes some way in reinforcing our theorem with the release of his self-titled debut on Felte, especially seeing as it arrives at the end of a 4-year gestation which itself followed an equally long period of experimentation and process before the muse and he came to terms. The wait and struggle has worked a wonder.

As indebted to My Bloody Valentine as to the 4AD glaze merchants to whom he’s most commonly yoked, the overall effect of listening to this album in one full sitting is that of being transported through a shining gloom and into a giant swath of shard-infested light. What’s most impressive, this being in most senses a one-man band, is the command of texture and nuance. Within these eight pieces one can get a visceral picture of the artist pitched over the canvas, as it were, it’s near 4AM and wires are scattered everywhere and the computer beams the only available light as the man known as TTOL pursues that singular internal vision that may well prove fatal should he not get it out.

That kind of broad-screen myopia plays out all through The Tower Of Light. From the dewy but heavy, lumbering but light opener “Cap Grass,” flangeing echoes and pedal effects drifting sensate over the snap and pound of a doomy drum track, to the updated-Cure atmospherics of the narcotically uplifting “Carrier” that turns anxious midway with a panicked and angular breathiness, to recent ‘hit’ “Lightnet” that does a tidy turn as a luminously alluring nightmare, the bass and drums as ominous as a biblical thunderhead, the guitar’s treated sustain in a hovering yet slicing hold pattern overhead while the vocal splits the difference with a ghostly aluminum tone. Ace and memorable, it’s the perfect backdrop for falling in love on the brink of the apocalypse. Add in the pummeling restraint and dense drive of “The Visitor,” the rusty, futuristic, and punctured trance of “Glass Body,” the way “New God” collapses the collapsing of an entire universe into a single, glowing, deeply engaging dirge, how “Wish” finishes things off in an uprising cataract of post-punk post-rock grandeur, melody draped on sheets of coruscating noise as if in the vaults of heaven angels wear long black overcoats and strap on electrics turned to maximum phwoah! and you’ve got a record that front-to-back never lets up.

 

Splinters of light, dark ecstatic urges, shrouded figures pulling mountains of sound through the eye of a hard diamond needle, this is the stuff of the recluse’s fevered dreams. It would seem that the further in they go, the further out they go, and The Tower of Light has emerged blinking into the common sunlight, one condensed but uncontainable jewel of a debut held high in his hand.

scattered bodies

OK, now this – an album called Talking Songs by a band named Scattered Bodies (Dream Tower Records) – is the sort of thing we just salivate over here at the Shadowplay desk. Producer Andy Meyers of Toronto art/post/punk band The Scenics (check their 1980 debut Underneath The Door, 2012’s reunion set Dead Man Walks Down Bayview or the Velvets live covers comp, all available for purchase here, though the VU cover album and various recovered live-tape albums can be had as free downloads) brings both old and recently-created rhythm, melody, and just plain noise samples from said band and manipulates them to accompany the words of accomplished writer Brian Brett, whose memoir from 2008, “Uproar’s Your Only Music” – about his struggles with Kallmann syndrome – and 2009’s incisive “Trauma Farm, A Robot History of Rural Life” were both deserving award-winners north of the border. As these things tend to work best with a balancing third voice, especially, in this case, a female one, writer/performer/composer Sushella Dawne was invited into the process, and the result is not only a bewitchingly fertile triangle of deep, rich, mystical, irreverent, funny, poignant and haunting material unlike anything else you’ll hear all year (promise), but also precisely the type of adventurous, intelligent, and boundary-less project the very core of post-punk is premised upon. Hence our excitement. It’s not misplaced.

[Brian Brett – picture Joni Kabana]

brian brett

Where to start but the proverbial anywhere. At the moment I have mid-album track “Time of the Thrush” in my ears, requisite afternoon birdsong backdropping a low deliberate engine throb of bass and a repeat of a single muffled organ note as the acrylic-clear husk of Dawne’s voice essays a rustically-tinged appraisal of a life’s curious journey – in this case hers but surely it applies to any one of us – laying out against the glinting sun the “soft narcotic dreams of travel and danger,” tales of being a “street tough urchin, a dumpster diver…fire stealer, street strutter,” you get the picture, some hard-lived words laid in a bucolic but somehow unsettled setting. Just previous to “Time..” is “Clothing of My Youth,” Brett’s smooth gruff baritone detailing a lust for the accoutrements of his prime which, of course, is, in every representative sense, the prime itself, proving both the power of his memoirist chops (“the blue jean jacket embroidered with a half a complete phoenix, how I loved this promised pull“) and the wisdom of pairing it with Meyers’ sonic crayon box – the guitar-chorded, organ-flooded backing here like a spiky evocative background static – not to mention tripling it with a female presence, in this case the arch tongue of guest Magpie Ulysses making a jabbed cameo atop a jived beat interlude. Just after is the exotic, erotically yearning “Lady Boy at the Siem Reap Bridge,” wherein a telling transformative moment on the titular crossing is talk-sung by Brian with a plainspoken reverie amid a thatched quilt of muddy bamboo forest bass, a punkish Stills-Young guitar figure flaring through it like cobra curls of smoke, drums from up the Cambodian river, and brief lilting canopies of vox from Dawne, a canny blend amounting to an overall patchwork of verdant atmospherics that places you there, leaves you there, lets you smell the jungle night.

 

So there you have just three teasing examples that happen to be strung together in a bloc and though exemplary of the profligate imagination corralled together on this record, they’re hardly stand-outs. Everything’s like this. They are your wildest dreams refracted through a celebratory sobriety of tone, immersive and exacting, far-out and instinctual. You don’t need more evidence but allow me to pile it on anyway. The languid bop-jazz groove of Susheela-voiced “The Many Moments,” her voice with an unbreakable, pellucid strength, her words timeless in the face of mortality, putting paid to fatalism; opener “Mindanao Deep,” plangent and plunging, Brett’s voice immediately reminding of Peter Blegvad (just as this record itself commands comparisons to 2012’s Blegvad-Andy Partridge classic Gonwards), Meyers’ treatment mercilessly sympathetic to the song’s wry indictment of human behavior as equated with the savage habits of some of the ocean’s most resourceful underdog predators; the wise, almost off-hand acceptance of “This Is What I Know,” life not nasty, brutish and short but hopeful, beautifully-shadowed and short, chopped and spare guitars that sound like backwards tape manipulations met by a quietly unmissable cello-like note of rhythmic insistence and then it’s gone, “the fine, ludicrous clock of existence swallowing itself.”

[Andy Meyers & Susheela Dawne – picture Matilda Meyers]

meyers and dawne

And oh is there more, almost too much more, but enough’s been said to persuade of the artistry, inventiveness, candor, energy and intelligence brought to bear on these pieces. Talking Songs wields its perspective like a cudgel of lived-in wisdom with which you’ll be undyingly (ha!) grateful to have been struck. Mixing disciplines like this can be a prickly business, so much could go awry, from the simple push-and-pull of complex artistic temperaments making a tangle of it to the even simpler prospect of the participants’ basic styles failing to mesh. It’s easy in these circumstances for someone’s fuse to get prematurely shorted and the whole thing melting down. Here, however, all such challenges are rather spectacularly met, resulting in an album that’s as fearlessly outré as it is vibrantly soulful, and you can’t get much more post-punk than that.