Art as Catharsis
Reviewed by Joseph Cummins, March 3rd, 2016
Perth doom/sludge/blackened drone band Drowning Horse offer darkly shimmering, grim sublime-scapes for a post-apocalyptic world.
Featuring Kim McConchie on vocals and noise, James Wills on drums, Brendan McGrath and Michael Larkins on guitars and Robin Mander on bass, Drowning Horse’s music is moving, emotional, intense, but also extremely hypnotic and immersive, and I think this combination of elements is what marks this release as special.
Defined by low tuned guitars and bass, punishingly slow and medium tempos, and vocals whose crackling and cavernous power is sympatico with percussive rage and general distortion, Drowning Horse’s sound is one that references the best in what could be called ‘low and slow’ metal, like Sleep, Sunn O))) and Earth (how basic and elemental these band names makes the music sound…). In combining aspects of each of these influences – tempos, textures, and rules of tension and release – Sheltered Sky is able to keep the listeners attention across more than 70 minutes of music. While I felt that the release was a little long (perhaps the power of these compositions could have been intensified by the relative brevity of the whole collection), there is no doubt that each track is very strong.
The tension produced by slow moving chord progressions is a reoccurring and very affecting modis operandi. On Echoes the harmony has a wonderfully elastic character, highly pleasurable in its inevitable cycle and return. Evoking the religious chanting of Om’s ‘Kabala Doom’, the fuller instrumentation and introduction of the harsher vocals halfway through the track enables Drowning Horse to push the mood way beyond what the legendary US two-piece is capable. Often McConchie’s vocals enter into the music at moments that signal a move towards upmost intensity, but I like how these entries are tempered by a relatively low dynamic in the mix. The impact is more timbral than anything else, although an underlying urgency or anger associated with this type of vocal is always apparent.
Curse, perhaps the centrepiece of the album, opens with a sublimely beautiful, reverberant and spare guitar passage, laced with overtones and hinted-at feedback. Again, part of the attraction of this track is the careful management of ever-growing tension. Almost exactly halfway through we encounter the inevitable fulfilment of all the pent-up energy that has been building. While these moments are as intense as the band gets, I loved the delicacy of the guitar melody that crowns this ruinous scene. The development of new harmonic and textural material in the final five minutes also leads to another climax. It’s an epic track: at extreme volume, one can imagine how affecting the sonic restraint of Curse would be.
This is an extremely high-quality recording. The different elements of the ensemble – higher register guitar melodies, howls and screams, detuned guitar chords, bass and drums – are all balanced and aligned with what each track is trying to achieve. In other words, there’s real clarity to the dark, driving nihilism often conjured by Drowning Horse. In particular, there’s great attention to detail with the guitars: I was struck by the beauty of the guitar work in the midst of tracks like The Barrow Stones, where new melodic pathways are forged and subtle textures highlighted. The instrumental tracks like Red Earth and Black Waters also offer the listener a chance to fully grasp the tonal complexity of this music. Not that attention to detail isn’t apparent across the whole album – the entry of the vocals is always precise and vital.
When Drowning Horse take a step back from the muscular-but-dirge-like rhythms that characterised most of the tracks, the cosmic, all-encompassing sound-mass of feedback and beating overtones is immersive and sublimely beautiful, reminding me of the best parts of Sunn O)))’s orchestral doom album Monoliths and Dimensions. When you can hear sounds buried within sounds (or imagine that you can), then you know the music is really working.
Drowning Horse’s Sheltered Sky is, despite the tonal and vocal challenge posed (especially to listeners not accustomed to this world of music), affirmative, infused with energy, and focused.