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TRIPTYCH INTO DARKNESS – Whispering Sons “Several Others” / XTR HUMAN “G.O.L.D.” / The City Gates “Age of Resilience”

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How unlucky am I? Having launched this column a couple months ago I’m now faced with the ‘arduous’ prospect of sitting in intense communion with an album like Several Others by Belgium’s Whispering Sons. Oh my the burden, the backbreaking labor of listening over and over to one of the most inspiring, dynamic, just plain fucking gifted post-punk bands that just happen to be riding atop the ever-cresting wave that is the 21st c. resurgence. It is, as they say, a tough job but someone’s gotta do it and for you, dear reader, I’m willing to take the hit, wincing with joy, cringing under the punishing spell of utter bedazzlement. No no, no need to thank me. I make this sublime sacrifice willingly and, really, anything for you, anything.

Following on the long heels of 2018’s Image, the arresting cover and stunningly nuanced urgency of which found it not only landing well-placed in SEM’s top 25 releases of that year’s fervent darkwave scene but garnering the coveted feature photo as well, the unassumingly titled Several Others (June 18th on [PIAS]) finds the Brussels five-piece leaning forward with such force into their already formidable momentum that it feels they’re pulling it into the maw of the future rather than the standard other-way-around. Not, per se, jumping out at you, the record opts instead to stride with both blithe confidence into the front room of your consciousness, standing athwart whatever level of expectation is to be found there and just getting on with it, their sonorous, at times tremulous countenance – that latter adjective the product of singer Fenne Kuppens’ fragile but unshakeable vocal style – overshadowing (shall we say) any pre-conceived notions whatever their stripe. Whispering Sons may take no prisoners – surely the case – but they do so with nothing but artful persuasion, without provocation, to such point that the prisoners (that’s us, by the way) fall in behind them, entranced and feverish with belief. As much, perhaps, as anything, however, it’s the band’s confidence that most staggers the senses, a quality so evident it goes without saying. That said, however, it does bear noting that few bands would choose to open a fairly long-awaited second effort with a track called “Dead End.”

Creeping in on the sure surge of a solitary guitar figure that ushers in the song’s structured progression before handing it off to the bass, “Dead End,” crashing through catharsis, ultimately pulls off that crafty and classic aesthetic trick of couching what’s at its heart a study in self-loathing (“I’m a bitter bad person / a superficial version“) inside an arrangement that, buried in the passing sparkle and slight uptempo shift in its bridge, suggests, well, not hope exactly but maybe a note of resolution, an uncasting, however briefly, of whatever shadow otherwise darkens the palette. It’s the type of tension – and it is just one of, not the predominant – that has defined Whispering Sons since their emergence some eight years ago and their command of it, based on the evidence here, has only become more intrinsically precise as they’ve moved forward.

There’s the frantic agitated coil that is “Heat” (imagine the Feelies in a desperate and emotionally fraught place) that holds itself together with a physics-defying level of control, there’s “(I Leave You) Wounded,” feverish and hovering with care until the viscera begins to push through the filament, the light pouring out of Kuppens a type of fetid, a type of pure, there’s “Vision,” nervously sure of its self, exuding a fractious mysticism that has to tear itself apart in order to find its center while all you can do is nod your head to its addictive rhythm whether in agreement or not which is well beside the point. There’s “Screens,” bracing beautiful pitched in obsession and possibly blood, “Flood,” roiling the speakers with bass and panic, chased as if on the run but with a violently hypnotic calm, “Surface,” undone from the start but never showing it, the soul of it held together, thriving even, by the frisson of possible chaos and I am in fact at this point just running headlong down the tracklist as if there’s some sort of unspoken timebomb ticking away inside my brain but that’s just the pulse of this thing, this album called Several Others, it grabs ahold of you by the throat – no, the plexus, the very center of you – at the same time it’s urging you to let yourself go which is unnecessary as you already have the deal is done.

So I’m just going to leave “Aftermath,” “Satantango” and “Surgery” to the now-primed graces of your own discovery and just say this: Fuck lists (as we’re wont to say around here anyway). There’s already nil doubt that this second album from Whispering Sons will be found in countless top tens – and yes, including Victor’s and mine regardless of the above parenthetical – come the reckonings as the next winter solstice approaches but the hallowed truth is this: this Belgian band land in, well, several categories all their own and by that fact are they simultaneously immune to lists and – irony of ironies, there is always irony – likely to top many of them. But I tell you they swirl alone in their ionosphere, in and out of their own control. This…is quantum post-punk. [purchase your copy – or several for that matter – here]

XTR HUMAN – G.O.L.D. (Braid Records)

Fast approaching the 10-year mark as a ‘band,’ the Würzburg-born, Berlin-based Johannes Stabel, DBA XTR Human since 2012, very early in that tenure emerged as one of the worldwide scene’s most reliably rewarding and, well, stable artists. Not so much in the album-every-year kind of way – while great for us as listeners, artists aren’t factories – but rather in the unstinting reliability of their material’s quality. Since debut full-length Atavism arriving in April 2014, activating any product be it in file form or physical stamped with the XTR Human imprimatur is a guaranteed trip into what you might hear as a hard bliss, a machine and guitar-driven ecstasy with an edge. Always something of the dark – occasionally a bit menacing – Berlin club feel to it, touched with strict kisses of EMB, the XTRH experience has always been one of buzz and solidity, reliably grooved without so much as a single MIDI not to dance floor pandering. With G.O.L.D., issued June 11th on Braid and with no specific allusion in its title (which we love; make up your own meaning, it’s interactive!), the drive toward the perfected fusion of said elements continues with a take-no-pri- or no, wait – take-all-listeners slash-and-burn finesse.

Singing this time entirely in his native tongue – like all so-called first world nations there’s a lot to dig into regarding his homeland and there’s no room for anything but the contextually exact – Stabel neither pulls punches nor specifically offers them, instead getting on with the pressing business at hand by bringing the brunt of his by-now keenly developed studio command to bear.

Announcing itself with the first two video singles that provided delirious warning of this album’s imminent arrival – the stompingly frantic “Lieber Ohne Licht” (Life Without Light) from last March and “Wie Ein Gott” (Like A God), a dark club-infected gem that reels with a barely restrained tension that shook the horizon back in January – G.O.L.D. provides early, and, really, quite striking evidence of the mission Stabel is on here. “Fleische,” all synth and drums and deeply embedded hooks, makes a very strong case for being the record’s lead single (the fact it’s got so much competition gives the game away on this album’s earworm consistency right there), “Angst” propulses along with the deft tension its title would suggest, final pre-release teaser “Maschine” that crossed our radars last month has something of that know-it-when-you-hear-it Berlin vibe to it, teeming – precisely, mind – with that city’s late night joyous/nervous fatalistic late-night energy, while the boisterous “Starker Junge” (Storm Boy), with its Big Country chords and alluring synth-led melody line makes it an obvious next single choice in the pipeline, speaks, even sans translation, with unmistakable clarity to the concerns its author harbors about the current state of socio-political affairs in what is ostensibly one of the most enlightened countries in the EU.

It would be a mistake, however, to gather from that any impression that G.OL.D. is some sort of mere polemic marching toward your ears holding signs slashed with angry Sharpie scrawl. No, herr Schabel is far too sussed for that (hence his reputation throughout the darkwave world), far too pop intelligent. This record hauls you in to your inner dance floor from its first note and doesn’t let you leave it until you’re a sweaty mess. But it will, during your revelry and despite the language barrier, have you thinking as you move your business to its impetus and beat. With the intention, it would seem, to ensure that very response, one track here has been given an English name. It’s the only two words (aside from the album title) not written in German on the cover, the only two words not sung in German in the studio. Nonetheless “Dark Germany,” aside from being as urgent a ‘banger’ as any on this album (an achievement, believe me), gets its point across and in so doing points to G.O.L.D‘s wider remit even for those of us that can barely understand a word. A small but brilliant gesture, it speaks the necessary volumes to both the work and the vibrantly dark abilities of its author. [grab some  G.O.L.D. here]

THE CITY GATES – Age of Resilience (Icy Cold Records/Velouria Recordz)

Some bands and artists make a name for themselves overnight (OK, not that many really but a few) but most develop at a varied but still universal rate. They accrue, they gestate, marinating in fate and experience, gathering their essence about them like a shroud slowly animating and taking human shape. In so doing, as they grow under wider and wider lights, they arrive stronger, close to fully formed. You can hear – you can feel – the process in them, that artist’s life energy brimming to the very edge of its abilities. It’s a thrill to partake in as a listener (reader, viewer, it ain’t just where music’s concerned, of course) and brings us to The City Gates, double entendre possibly intended.

From Montréal, in thrall to much of what we’re all in thrall to (no need to elaborate here, is there? Thought not), the Gates – Maxime Wingender guitar/vox, François Marsan guitar/vox/drum machine, Jean-Sebastien bass/vox, Justin Morneau drums – as measured in recorded output, are approaching a decade’s worth of service, their first album Collapse appearing in 2013. That noted, there was something of a post-debut hiatus that, whatever the reason, the band has seemed intent on compensating for in the past few years, with full-length Forever Orbiter landing in 2018 and now the masterful album under consideration here (released June 9th) that, despite those backstory details and dynamics, makes us very grateful indeed that they’ve persevered.

Working from a shoegaze/dreampop playbook throughout the pages of which they’ve overwritten those somewhat ethereal tenets with their own more forceful passages, ones lifted from the classicist’s post-punk canon, the result is a potently intricate, assured sound that suggests Ride if they’d rode not out of Oxford at the tail end of the 80s but rather Manchester some ten years prior. There is, in short, a funereal touch to this band’s brand of elegance, one we found ourselves stalking around in with mystery and not a little beauty tugging at our coattails, gleams of light streaking overhead, a perhaps too poetic way of saying that the sheer quality of The Age of Resilience jumps out at you pretty much everywhere you turn.

“The Pyre,” bursting forth with coruscating guitar, the rhythm section deep in history’s trenches, the vocals reaching for transcendence inside it all; “Cape of Good Hope,” sounding for everything like the mourning, ache-filled soundtrack to a tragedy at sea (it is, in a phrase, fucking beautiful); the gazey, suitably enigmatic yet pounding shiver of “Tending a Dead Woman’s Garden”; “Roman Empire,” via mesmerism, gently lowering the listener into a chiaroscuro reverie; the German-sung “Siegfried 1969,” pulsing, haunted and ultimately unleashed; “Copenhagen,” as gauzy a dream of a dreamscape as you’ll hear this year, its yearn a bit bitter, its exquisiteness uncontestable. All of which, accounting as it does for just over half the album, is but a whetting of appetite. Age of Resilience – and god let’s hope that title turns out to be prescient – is a feast. Sit down (or, more likely, get up, sway around) and indulge. [the key to The City Gates available here or here]