Brooding, Conceptual Metal
Light Falls marks the fourth full-length release by J.R. Robinson’s shape-shifting Wrekmeister Harmonies in as many years. However, while their past releases have involved a bevy of guest musicians – including the likes of Jef Whitehead of Leviathan, David Yow of Jesus Lizard and jazz composer Ken Vandermark – the collective’s newest effort features a much smaller group. Joining Wrekmeister’s core of Robinson and multi-instrumentalist Esther Shaw are Godspeed You! Black Emperor members Thierry Amar, Timothy Herzog and Sophie Trudeau. While these are not the only guest musicians featured on the album, Light Falls’ cast is able to craft a sound that feels much more intimate than that of its predecessor’s 30-plus member ensemble.
Throughout seven sprawling tracks, Robinson and company manage to convey powerful themes of despair and loss. The album takes its title from the text of Primo Levi’s memoir If This Is A Man, which describes his year spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz. Therefore, the listener should expect an appropriate dose of morose music.
Wrekmeister Harmonies construct some eerily dark soundscapes that work to appropriately capture the horror of their subject matter. Part one of the eponymous three-part opener, “Light Falls,” sets the stage with its meandering acoustic guitars and wailing synth textures. Meanwhile, Robinson repeatedly croaks the haunting vocal phrase, “stay in/go out/get sick/get well/light falls,” to place the listener in a state of unease. Throughout the remainder of the album, Wrekmeister Harmonies continue to sonically explore this seeping darkness. In the album’s second number, “The Light Burns Us All,” the group introduces a muddy chorus of overdriven guitars. “Light Falls III – Light Sick” offers a cacophonous blend of discordance with its heavy dosage of electric guitars; yet it still rings with a certain emotional resonance. The subsequent track, “The Gathering,” features a delicate combination of arpeggiated guitar figures, piano tones and wistful strings before devolving into metallic sludge. “Where Have You Been My Lovely Son?” on the other hand, captures a subtler – yet equally dark – mood through its atmospheric droning of strings.
Rather than establishing inspiring melodic and harmonic material, Robinson focuses on crafting these mesmerizing atmospheres of darkness. While this, unfortunately, may prevent individual songs from ever truly ringing memorable, it allows Light Falls to play as a remarkably cohesive work. The album maintains a sense of intense disquiet throughout its entirety. Apart from a few hopeful string swells heard on the album’s closer, Light Falls features very few uplifting moments. Each song merely furthers the aforementioned themes of anguish and dismay. And to help reinforce this continuity, track demarcations are largely obscured, rendering it difficult to distinguish one song from another. For example, “My Lovely Son Reprise” plays as more of an extension of “Some Were Saved Some Were Drowned” than as a standalone track. This helps Light Falls to feel even more like a concept album. Songs are obviously much less important than the entire body of work. (Of course, this should not be particularly surprising considering some of Wrekmeister’s earlier albums – namely, You’ve Always Meant So Much to Me and Then It All Came Down – were comprised of a single, subdivided song.)
Godspeed You! Black Emperor also leave an indelible mark on the album. Amar’s thumping bass and Herzog’s powerful, plodding drums give percussive weight to tracks like “Light Falls II – The Light Burns Us All” and “Some Were Saved Some Were Drowned,” as they build to impressively dynamic heights. Trudeau’s impressive string-work adds layers of melancholy to “Light Falls III – Light Sick” and “The Gathering.” While Robinson’s drone metal outfit has always boasted a chameleonic sound due to its ever-changing cast of contributors, the continued presence of these three guest musicians on Light Falls helps the album to achieve a distinctively ponderous sound.
Sole aficionados of happy, upbeat and melodic music may want to pass on Wrekmeister Harmonies’ latest offering. It truly has little to offer in any of these three categories: its atmospheres are unapologetically bleak; its rhythms plod along deliberately; and its songs adamantly refuse to extend a melody. However, while Light Falls may not be your conventional, radio-friendly album, it is a surprisingly conceptual work that forces the listener to engage in thought. Fans of more contemplative or abstract metal music will certainly enjoy Wrekmeister’s approach. Even fans of post-rock music may appreciate Light Falls’ atmospheric tone. Simply put, while Light Falls may not resonate with everyone, its refreshingly thoughtful take on the metal genre is something worth commending.