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TRIPTYCH INTO DARKNESS – PALAIS IDEAL “Negative Space” / The Sea at Midnight “Oceans” EP / Dry Wedding “Sway”

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PALAIS IDEAL “Negative Space” (Cold Transmission)

Pretty much every aspect of what Palais Ideal have going for them is…complicated. While on the one hand, the duo of John Edwards and Richard van Kruysdijk being of a certain age (53 and 54 years old, respectively) might, by some people’s lights and despite these relatively enlightened times, be a mark against them, the evidence pouring through the speakers, um, speaks to the contrary and with some force, if anything pointing instead to the inherent merits of having a fair amount of lived life behind you as you’re plugging in your gear. I mean, aside from the skipload of both received and hands-on wisdom they’ve accumulated as they plow well into their fourth decade of music making, there’s also just the mere perspective accorded anyone from that somewhat ‘elevated’ perch that guarantees a certain seasoning assuming one’s been paying attention, which, by the sound this lot’s been making for some time now – prophetically titled debut EP The Future Has Been Cancelled dropped summer 2017 – not to mention the wallop of authority behind it, they most certainly have.

Added to this non-issue are the similarly inconsequential facts that one is full-on British while the other is Dutch as Dutch gets (though John’s been a Nederlander since his teens when his father took an overseas posting) and that it’s just the two of them responsible for said wallop, divvying studio responsibilities pretty much down the middle, a not unusual set-up these days to be sure but the results aren’t often as commanding as the noise Palais Ideal have managed to conjure during a run of two full-lengths and a healthy bundle of singles and EPs. It’s a run that continues here as Negative Space, released a few months ago on Cold Transmission, takes the baton and advances the PI mission further toward its unstated goal of world domination.

Typically unstinting at an even dozen tracks (as was predecessor Pressure Points), the shortest three-and-a-quarter minutes – dystopian pounder “Reject the Anaesthetic” – the majority easily breaching the 4-minute mark, this album further cements the band’s reputation for having a penchant for dynamics backed up by a devilishly strong Protestant work ethic. There is, in other words, no quit to these two, a statement corroborated to the hilt here on their latest.

Charging out of the gate with “The Overseer” which injects a Sisters sonority with a bit of a cyborg vibe that in its essence brings early Ultravox! to mind, there’s really no let-up thenceforth. “Results,” following, is classic Palais, which is to say a banger that boasts a nuanced aggression a la Kill Shelter which is likely no surprise in this case seeing as it’s Pete Burns sitting in the producer’s chair (the pair have developed a habit of ceding partial studio control to those with certain pedigrees, Pressure Points having had none other than John Fryer at the helm). A tough track to follow for some perhaps but the band, as throughout this album and really their career in general, meet the challenge with their usual aplomb. Though looser in sound and approach, with adroit melodic electric runs holding  court against a heavy subterranean rhythm and a stirring chorus, “Keeping the Faith” is nonetheless as driving as anything on here, while lengthy centerpiece “Static Movement,” arguably the band’s most hypnotic track even as there’s no surcease to the pure forward-leaning throb of it, swirls the cerebral with the primal that few would dare let alone pull off with the resplendent ease heard here. This also comes as no shock as it’s a tendency Palais Ideal has been fleshing out as its template since first we heard them. Even within the fairly glum confines of, say, “Faintly Falling” – “where is this future that was promised us?” – a humanity, however dim at times, rises through the fog and distress. It isn’t redemption, exactly (that’s impossible for any of us) but neither is it doom. For every “How Do You Feel?” – a hit-in-waiting despite its road-to-hell contents – there’s a track like “The Voice of Reason,” one of those songs that even in the face of our current capital E ‘everything’ chooses to chime in with an optimism however fraught. Among much else to recommend them, Palais Ideal, it would seem, know that the value of keeping us the listener somewhat off-footed is a way to keep us paying attention. Noticing your mind drift is one thing we can pretty much guarantee won’t be a problem listening to Negative Space. 

Nearly an hour long, the message gleaned (intentionally or not), extracted from the shadows and given a chance to speak, speaks of hope, of that cautious brightness that makes the gloom possible. This album, which is to say this band, the two musicians inside it, understand this basic, intensely ironic truth: if you were to take a photograph – the old kind, with film – of negativity, of all that saturated darkness and despair, the negative of that shot would, of course, be its eerie counterpoint, light. Pedestrian and obvious as it may be to say, there can’t be the one without the other and at times – and this would surely be one – it might very well pay to choose one’s focus with care.

See, we said it was a little complicated but with all that laid out behind us now the primary thing Palais Ideal have going for them is what appears an almost instinctual ability to create a helluva engaging album time and again. It is, after all, that dark light that brings most of us joy and Negative Space, however counterintuitively given its title, brings it in great abundance. [pick up Negative Space here]

 THE SEA AT MIDNIGHT “Oceans” EP (self-released)

To say the least, the concept of ‘delayed gratification’ doesn’t sit well in the modern psyche for reasons I hardly need to elucidate. But some truths are truths for the simple fact they’ve been seen as such through multiple generations over several centuries. One of those tried and tested truisms, coming in this context with a bonus twist of insider irony, is that with great exception nearly everything of sustainable value takes time. While not wishing to put paid to the validity of a ‘sudden burst of genius’ the fact is such instances to the extent they really happen at all (as dreamers we all like to cling to the idea of a flash of brilliance) are precious rare and, more to the point, never actually ‘come out of nowhere’ but are birthed by a host of pre-existing factors that, in that one lucky moment, all happened to hop on the same synaptic train at the same time. In essence it’s the neurological version of ‘nothing happens by accident’ that has as its corollary those incidents in lived human experience where we convince ourselves that had we not, metaphorically or literally, turned left that time instead of right none of ‘this’ would have happened. While not dismissing entirely the value of a crucial catalyst, the fact is whatever the sought result that is now suddenly realized already dwelt within, buried beneath the debris of doubt and anxiety and frayed self-confidence, eager with its patience, fed by some secret store of hope and confidence. Fate may need a nudge but the kernel of the thing is not its property. As four-letter ‘F’ words go it ranks pretty high in our common vocabulary but for all it’s accorded power fate can’t produce shit. That work’s up to us. Should that assertion require an IRL example, we offer up Vince Grant and his project The Sea at Midnight.

While inspired by the usual suspects – Cure Echo Siouxsie Joy et al – the Chicago-born Vince didn’t bring home his first guitar until 1987 at the ‘advanced’ age of twenty-three. In fairly short order he began playing in local bands, upped sticks to Los Angeles then spent a handful of years shuttling between there and New York performing in bands while failing to elude or outrun the not-atypical demons of drug addiction and alcoholism that were meant to quell the cling of depression but of course only deepened it. Eventually via grit and sobriety finding his way free – or free enough – of that complicated fog to live a functional life, Grant settled for good in LA. A few years scuttled by during which time he was pretty certain is days of playing in bands were well behind him. It’s here our story turns on our dear aforementioned friend, fate.

Deciding, in early 2019, he may as well dust off and perhaps polish his guitar skills – once a musician etc etc – Grant pulled up Craigslist and scrolled. Within minutes he hit upon forty-two words that made his head swim. Let’s read them together in full: “If you’re a shoegaze, goth, post-punk, synthpop, darkwave, dream pop or similar genre artist looking for someone to produce or record your music that understands the genre, I would love to get in contact to see how we could possibly work together.” Eyes popped and heart full, curiosity pegging in the red, Vince couldn’t resist getting in touch even as recording wasn’t the primary driver behind his search that morning. Thus was a meeting agreed upon and thus was The Sea at Midnight steered toward the services of Mr Chris King, one of the primary driving forces behind the transcendently good LA-based band Cold Showers. That there’d been no mention of that in either the ad nor the phone call that resulted spoke volumes to King’s character, a volume that only grew when Chris both agreed to work with Vince while also suggesting Glaare‘s Brandon Pierce be invited to contribute.

At that point all this would have been naught but the makings of a pretty cool anecdote had it not been for the quality of material Grant brought to the studio. If that hadn’t been the case, we could insert the ‘silk purse/sow’s ear’ aphorism here, I could unwrite all these words and we could just go back to what we were doing. But that would, quite obviously, not be this particular stroke of fate’s fate. What began as a plan for a single became an EP became a self-titled (and decidedly excellent) debut album released via Bandcamp in November 2020 (remastered and reissued last March) and the original premise of this review just exploded like a burst of rhetorical fireworks all over your screen.

Both King and Pierce were indeed crucially instrumental to the realization of The Sea at Midnight but even considering their undoubted conjuring skills it’s simply the case that you can’t create something out of nothing and especially can’t create something sublime without a basket of already sublime ingredients at the ready and that’s exactly what, in the form of songs, Vince brought to the party. So, yeah, there’s another creative myth shot to shit but let’s just move on to the record at hand.

Self-released a couple weeks ago, Oceans, a 4-song teaser EP for an upcoming full-length, convinces with commanding ease from the first chord onward that that eponymous debut was no lucky-shot fluke by more or less picking up where that record left off if with – almost impossibly – a clutch of even stronger songs. The first up title track echoes (if you will) that sonorous mid-tempo Echo vibe, not so much compositionally and not just due the clear thematic hit, but more its luminescence and how the haunt of its melody’s romanticism hangs palpably throughout the track’s near five-minute length. Next, “Afraid of the Waves” – and yes, there is a flow here – features a vocal fearless in its vulnerability and while a slower go than its predecessor the cathartic release let loose in the chorus, especially as a dual power spiral of guitars crest above and behind it, makes for one very bracing listen, full stop. The well-named “Atmosphere,” meanwhile, emanates a well-past, umm, midnight feel as if written in the dead-of but whether that’s the case or not its sense of intimate dislocation not only lends an exacting resonance to the song’s face value subject matter – irretrievably lost in actual space – but in so doing underscores the ‘dark night of the emotional soul’ aspect that so permeates it, not to mention the yearn of escape that comes with. Thus suspended, it’s nice to land where we do, on “I Can’t Wait”‘s more joyously chiming and resilient note (even as it does begin stuck in Ohio where it’s snowing on April Fools). Buoyant if just as intense as what’s preceded it, it’s a song a certain Mr Burgess will have to wonder why he never wrote – no lie, it’s that good – filled to the brim as it is with that kind of forlorn upliftingness we’re always looking/hoping for despite our dark selves, not least right here on the brink of a finally ending (or so we fucking hope) pandemic.

By virtue of his latecomer circumstance Vince Grant is that unusual artist that simultaneously embodies both promise and a sort of redemption so it’s no surprise that a poignant tension runs like blood through his body of work. The sea at midnight may seem a lonely desolate place to find oneself but as the band so named so clearly knows there is an abundance of life forever teeming just beneath the surface and far down into the depths. [find Oceans here]

DRY WEDDING – “Sway” (self-released)

Ain’t none of this easy. Creating music in any capacity – and we’re talking original pieces here be they in whatever category, with words or without – is unavoidably a risky proposition. To even take that first shy step, sequestered in your bedroom as you stumble your way through your first chords of synth stabs is an act of almost brutal courage, because no matter the quiet nook of privacy you’ve carved out there’s always that audience of one, hunched in judgment, casting its little shadows. There is no escaping it. Inside every musician first fumbling toward their own identity and style their most merciless critic is born. At that point, at some level, you’ve signed the devil’s deal and agreed to subject your tenderest heart’s desire – wherein dwells the embers of your pride – to the strict and unforgiving agent of your own integrity. Recognizing that you’re the last person you can fool is both a reassuring backstop and daunting as fuck.

I mention all this as a means to speak to the concept of the sui generis voice, that singular enigmatic voice in – and spun from out of – the wilderness. You could say Nick Cave has such a voice as did a certain Mr Pierce as well as Tom Waits and Captain Beefhearts of this world that, though from a different sonic patch of the woods, belong in this same subset of singers the individual members of which are, paradoxically, a category of one. To this group we add Davey Ferchow, former lead vocalist and songwriter for defunct Long Beach band Swampland and, for a number of years now, the same for Portland four-piece Dry Wedding, whose second album Sway arrived this last December a scant year-and-a-half past the scathing rasp of their debut The Long Erode. 

Harsh yet merciful, stentorian to a point yet intimate, there’s something almost casually mercenary to Ferchow’s voice that borders – at least – on the visionary. His vocals can sound at times as if they’re emanating from a swirl of wind off the barren plains of a desert floor and/or rustled loose from a darkened, half-dead town, with all the apocalyptic implications that can suggest. One could consider it feral in a sense were it not so refined, in control enough of its heated ministrations, steadied by its own gravitas, that its pronouncements land with either the declarative emphasis of a gavel or the heartland passion of a frock-coated preacher laying out another bitter truth to his gathered flock. Or, most often the case, both.

Quite fortunately, by the graces of fate and good hard work, Ferchow has in his three bandmates – Jarrod Green guitars/keys, Chadwick Ferguson bass, Tom Fuller drums – a trio of co-conspirators that have the happy habit of making molten flesh of Davey’s songs, the four of them having developed a music bond that has, over the course of a couple quick years, shot past mere chemistry and more into the realm of the alchemical. There’s this furtive uncanniness to this lot’s work that, taken together with the nature of Ferchow’s aesthetic drive, is what accounts for Dry Wedding sounding very much like no other. Sui generis indeed.

Emerging past Fuller’s furiously concise flurry of drums, “The Salt of the Earth” stakes the record’s claim to the territory of the beautifully bruised and damned, exhibiting with the Wedding’s customary lurching panache their customary lack of pulled punches, our narrator an archetype, that archetype one of spiritual erosion of near if not full biblical proportion, in this case with said salt and said earth literally clinging to his godforsaken skin. Redemption is somewhere in the calculus but goes, as it most often does, wanting. Y’see, lyrically, as long established, Ferchow has a penchant for the desperate, his wordy dispatches rich (rife, even) with a level of existential regret as one might expect from a man scrawling in his diary in either the shadow of the gallows or within the wrecked confines of a cheaply rented room bitter with cigarette smoke and shit whiskey. This is not meant as a criticism but rather an invitation to the reader to relish as I do. Basking in the glory of ruin is, after all, at the heart of some of our best literature, from Conrad to Carver to McCarthy. Think, if you like, a Nick Cave that never abandoned that trenchant intensity for which we came to know him and add, maybe, a touch of his countrymate David McComb’s expansive lyricism but in any case I hasten to say these are not pop songs. Dense empathetic snapshots of the human condition at its untamed core, sure, but pop songs no.

Those songs can, however, in an almost lighthearted way, be quite funny despite their ostensible tone, as proven immediately on pummeling and compact second track “Depraved Estate,” the tale of ‘that’ guy on the outskirts of town whose property overflows with detritus of every description. While no less lurid than anything Ferchow writes, one can sense him rather enjoying himself here, taking his not inconsiderable powers of description to surreal, absurdist levels – “plastic plates stacked/canopies of saran wrap/vinyl lattices covered in latex rats” – while interspersing it all with  bare self-assessments from the protean collector himself (“it’s in my nature to get carried away“) that, despite how otherwise grim, make the comedy within the song’s sorry tableau inescapable. Just don’t get used to it.

“The Hatchet” comes at us with a pneumatic almost Birthday Party rawness to it, the early 8-minute “Frayed Rope,” besides counting as a new high water mark for the band, lives up to its presumed epic status via a relentless, stalking, shiveringly gorgeous intensity and some of Davey’s bleakest, most brittle lyrics yet, “For You To Take” kicks of – I kid you not – like a lost Buzzcocks track thanks to Ferguson’s pugnacious bass intro but, no worries, we’re soon back out in the territories where the lonesome get weird possessive and paranoid yet for all that the cut qualifies as what we might call a ‘Sergio Leone love song’ and is, currently, this writer’s new favorite Dry Wedding track. I could go on – there are three more songs wherein the sinister and sublime go dancing hand-in-hand – but I should hope by this point that few drifts have ever been more clearly gotten.

Suffice to say this: there are none of Steinbeck’s “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” wandering the wilds of this album – any embarrassment at all is either permanent unto death or, more likely, simply non-existent – but rather individuals fully cognizant of their relative wretchedness and have not only wrestled it into the very basis for their self-acceptance but wear it at least close to proudly on their tattered sleeves. Guilt, of course, figures often as it’s known to do in the circles characters of this sort tend to frequent but the crucial point to keep in mind, Ferchow’s work tends to suggest, is that beneath whatever fractured circumstance, whatever run of bad luck meeting poor choices meeting the middle of the dead silent night that led these subjects of his toward hitting an ever-deepening bottom began as a day much like the one you’re living right now. There’s naught but a sliver separates our fates so tread careful, pay attention to what errant nuances might be stalking your heart let you end up featuring in a Dry Wedding song. It’s our innate connection to those at rope’s end through Sway that explains our nearly addictive fascination with their plights. Captured with a dense, visceral clarity, it’s also the gift offered at the heart of Ferchow’s work. Open it. It might indeed bite but, if we’re honest, that’s exactly what we’re hoping for. [get Swayed here]