The past is like an anchor
Despite the longevity of Alexis Marshall’s main band Daughters, it feels like just yesterday that they surged into the popular conscience. Their most recent album, You Won’t Get What You Want, got glowing reviews from music critics both large and small, including one glowing review from this music critic. But Alexis Marshall is more than just his other output, and House of Lull . House of When proves that fact admirably.
It is, of course, easy to draw comparisons between this record and the latest Daughters album. Both feature Marshall’s iconic raspy, distressed timbre and lean heavily into a dark industrial space of overwhelming gloom. But beyond that, the album manages to differentiate its sound from that of its well-known older brother. Instead of a swirling cacophony, the record often meets people with plodding anxiety. Take, for instance, “Hounds of the Abyss,” which details the fearful questioning of a man deluded into paranoia or a man being genuinely stalked. Whatever the case, the listening experience is fittingly harrowing. The instrumentation rotates in a sort of holding pattern as the song burrows its way into the deepest core of your lizard brain and screams at you to run.
If that sounds unpleasant, then people should turn away from the record now. House of Lull . House of When showcases Marshall’s obsession with terror and pain. These themes once again rear their head on “It Just Doesn’t Feel Good Anymore.” The track, which is perfectly timed for life in a pandemic (and likely written about life in a pandemic), is soundtracked by a tornadic bit of jazz saxophone and clattering drums. But in this case, it is the lyrics that seek to overwhelm one with terror. Throughout the song, in what seems like an unending repetition (almost like life in quarantine), Marshall howls: “Don’t get up/ Don’t go out/ Don’t touch anything/ Don’t touch anyone/ Don’t look at anyone/ Don’t look at anything.” The repetitive nature of the track, coupled with the clear as day meaning and relevance, makes it a portrait of agony that is impossible to ignore.
Marshall does keep some things in reserve for those who would prefer an album that is more assaulting and less harrowing. “Religion as Leader” is nothing less than furious. The song starts at 11 and finishes at 25, for lack of a better analogy. Marshall’s vocals reach a fever pitch far beyond what he displays on the more bombastic albums from Daughters. People are no longer seconds from a meltdown but instead are witnessing it in real-time. The same holds true of “Open Mouth,” which, while not as absurdly brutal as “Religion as Leader,” is an unsettling and horrific experience thanks to its intense vocals and impossible to grasp rhythms and tempos.
By and large, Marshall does not see his solo work as a way to fully break away from what he has taught audiences to expect. The crossover between this record and the more recent output from Daughters is large, but how he differentiates himself from his band is both compelling and necessary. House of Lull . House of When stands as a fascinating portrait of agony, fear and misery that demands to be heard. In a time of unprecedented joy and misery, Marshall finds the perfect way to express the complexity of the terror people feel today—through futility and agony alone.