SHADOWPLAY: A Post-Punk/Darkwave Overview – GOLDEN APES “M Ʌ L V S,” FOREVER GREY “Alabaster Chamber”

Golden Apes / Forever Grey
M Ʌ L V S / Alabaster Chamber
afmusic / self-released

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You know how it is. A band that has mysteriously escaped your notice even though they’ve been in existence since 1998 and produce a rather immensely powerful brand of the type music that, as a result of both a Portland-based radio show and your online CV as a writer for Stereo Embers, you’re known to have a self-professed and profound weakness for, finally crosses your path and, well, there’s an urge to take to the rooftops and immodestly proclaim your new-found joy with, you hope, sufficient force to compensate for – if not outright erase – the embarrassing ignorance you’ve just been so generously relieved of. And so it is with Golden Apes, the Berlin-based post-punk band whose most recent album, M Ʌ L V S (pronounced, and spelled in current Latin script, as ‘malus’), was released by leading imprint afmusic last November. Seldom has the rhetorical ‘Where the hell have I been?’ been so bracingly unanswerable.

Shuddering across a full thirteen tracks with a dark foreboding and grace, melding the menu of classical post-punk elements – shadowy chrome glissandos of guitar (Aris Zaraka, primarily), sympathetic synths that swirl fog-like or press in with invisible atmospherics depending on the mood’s forecast (Gunter Büchau), the deep punch and throb of a bassline that artfully takes no prisoners (Christian Lebrecht), Peer Lebrecht’s baritone-leaning vocals dealing with life’s rage and ennui with the equitable presence of a measured gale – into a singularly commanding sound. If destiny has a motivating drive it sounds like this and there can be no wonder the band have been together for such a length of time. This noise they make, its impetus, leaves them no choice.

 

From the lush cathedral goth emanations that envelopes straightaway as “Cedars of Salt” kicks off proceedings – before, of course, exploding into a dark grandeur – to “Ignorance”‘s bass-restless, epic exuberance of spirit that comes over like a prayerful pleas to the fates above, Peer imploring with force like a betrayed post-punk Moses seeking a solace not likely forthcoming, to the jagged – if eminently tight – boisterousness of “Verity” that shows the Valhallan reflexes of a Sisters of Mercy enhanced by layers of deft (self-) production finesse that overshadows comparison, it’s abundantly clear that the idea here, track after track, is to have an impact. Not residually or implicitly but directly, like an injection, a bullet, a laser. Listening to M Ʌ L V S one gets the impression that this band sees no sense in giving quarter, and while it’s the case that theirs is an articulate assault, there’s still little doubt that every song is intended to inspire any that hear it to turn their head. Otherwise what’s the point? By the time I get to “Drown,” which, mind, is a mere five cuts in, I’m thinking to myself ‘I haven’t heard anything this brazenly beautiful since In Letter Form,’ no small praise from this desk.

Overall, there’s a symphony-like wholeness to Golden Apes’ sound, it fills itself out with its own effortless dimensionality, the tracks building on themselves organically as if there’s some sort of creative emotional fission involved, echoing out, doubling, tripling from the heart to the studio walls and beyond. Hear it in the aspirational, Chameleonic progression of “Grinding Mills,” attended by a vocal so sonorous one dares not take one’s ears off it. Hear it in “Sermon in the Vale”‘s stern melancholy bracketed inside outbursts that, shall we say, are shot at you from both sides. Hear it especially as the mournful acoustica of “Correlation” drifts with seamless unease into the deliriously lugubrious “Shadowplay,” a luminous, moody, and not a little majestic centerpiece that moves at the unhastened speed of a song on some kind of blessed penitent’s mission, exploring the boundlessness of existential regret, the kind we can’t escape no matter how happily our days may pass. The thing rises, expands, echoes off its own resonant walls of sound until it feels, odd as it is to say, sorrowfully triumphant.

 

M Ʌ L V S ends elegiac with the title track, a wordless send-off that, via its murky/shiny washes of treated guitar, a simple double-tracked acoustic figure that could double as a harpsichord, a faraway lowing synth that’s everywhere like air and several other captivating elements all working in an understated conspiracy, articulates as fateful a farewell as any words could hope to muster. Though no less flush with dynamism than the dozen that come before it, there’s nonetheless a guiding – and moving – calm to “M Ʌ L V S,” the track breathes with a feeling of completion. If the design was for the listener to be left in a state of suspended awe as silence returns past the fade, well, then, success. Golden Apes, for me at least, is easily the best band I’ve ever missed in this genre. It’s as if an entire lost dimension that I hadn’t realized was missing has finally been found, so, hey, hallelujah Golden Apes for that, and thank you.

Strange that in all this time I’ve been sporadically – some might say inconsistently and I couldn’t argue – penning this column for SEM, Forever Grey have never made an appearance. Strange not just because the Grand Rapids-based band, consisting of Sam Kubiak and Kevin Czarnik, has loomed as a larger-than-life presence since they emerged from the northern shadows in 2015, but rather because, in that short time – we’re talking roughly a year and a half at the time of writing – the pair have managed nine releases that, yes, have varied in scope from singles to EPs to three full-lengths (one of which, Boundaries, is a collection of cassette-only’s) but have never once stinted on quality. One would think that somewhere in that burst, especially seeing as they’ve been on this writer’s radar pretty much from the start, I’d have gotten around to covering them but never mind, it’s a busy dizzy hurly-burly life and all that, but regardless, let this serve as my mea culpa to Sam and Kevin (I mean, they came out to Portland and played my festival last year, ffs) and a glorious, pulse-racing wake-up call to any unfamiliar. Indeed, to all you new initiates, expect to get slapped across the face by the icy beautiful hand of ecstasy and, yes, love it.

Specializing in dark dreamscapes lush with a dystopian romanticism, this is goth-kissed darkwave as god had he not forsaken us intended it. Lyrically parsing the poetics of deep existential despair by way of quick impressionistic glimpses that suggest the ruined underworld ghost of a dissolute Lord Byron or some such (“pale skin so pure but misleading / full of milk and poison“), all the loss and longing inescapably caught but at least finding expression here, in the stoically resigned tones of of their voices, the two not infrequently trading vocals in a kind of grimly lucent call-and-response.

Lured by the prowling beauty of opener “The Style is Death,” pulled deliriously closer to the abyss by the lured hypnotism of “Sacrifices Made,” the back-and-forth of the female/male vox at perhaps their most entrancing, we’re then kept on the edge of the edge as the likes of “Winter Has Ended Early” – think Faith-era Cure stepped up to the pace of a racing heart – “Love is Temporary” – the word ‘funereal’ given a layered and finely-wrought makeover, pushed along by an impatient drum machine, a bassline that seems the very evocation of a fraught, eventually futile escape and some dextrous guitar/keyboard interplay that makes me write the phrase ‘sad majestic grace – and the punchy “Cathedral of Hailstone,” possibly the most club-ready slice of heavy morose (and dark) synth-wave the world has ever heard, we end on “Haunted Symbols,” a sonic, thematic apotheosis of sorts, Sam the only one singing this time, her voice encased in a febrile reverb, the track unspooling with a spooked insistence to a full six minutes, in the process becoming what might well be considered Forever Grey’s most texturally adventurous track yet, not least due it being bookended by an intro and coda that act as a visceral, emotional static making manifest in sound the song’s central theme of love turned to paralysis, intimacy to dislocation.

 

And thus we end at the heart of things. So much of what we hear in this genre and its subs presents a seductively chilly facade, icy synths, machine-set drums, an isolation inherent. Yet, as the sound inexorably pulls us to its side, we end up spending considerable time in its shadow and soon, emerging from the shuddering fog, arrives the central driving irony wherein the pulsing warmth of yearning and baleful attraction comes clad in disaffection, in the cold hard light of day being extended into the dead of night, made by that time all the more adamantine and heartbreaking. Few excel at this sleight-of-darkness sorcery than Forever Grey. When anyone asks us why we seem so obsessed by this type noise, Alabaster Chamber is precisely the kind of record we can play them as an answer.