Most of the albums that I post on here are of the variety that could be filed under the general term ‘difficult’. Not as in ‘difficult second album’, but as in ‘a difficult and challenging listen’. Nothing wrong with that, if a band have put in a lot of effort to come up with part of themselves at significant creative and financial cost; the very least we can do is take it seriously and think about what it means to us…chances are if you read this blog you’re not just looking for wallpaper music.
Which brings me to this Heron Oblivion album, a set of songs that are far from difficult to listen to but which had a huge amount invested in them from the musician involved and, from the first time I heard them, have had me utterly beguiled with their alchemic magic and beauty. This feels like an effortless album, and certainly listening to it provides a welcome respite from long heavy jams and rapid fire garage stabs….
Yet that, of course, is not the full story; as you would expect from a band with two members of Comets on Fire, Ethan Miller (bass) and Noel Von Harmonson (guitar), in it. The four piece is completed by Charley Saufly (guitar, Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound) and Meg Baird (vocals and drums, Espers), and together they have created a sublime record of guitar-focussed psychedelic music which takes the best of the early 70s (Zeppelin, The Stooges, Crazy Horse, with a sheen of Laurel Canyon thrown in) and have created something that is like nothing else that I know of around at the moment. It might sound effortless, but a lot of hard work will have gone into making it sound like that.
From what I have said so far you could be forgiven for thinking that this is something of a mellow album: well, it isn’t. What it is is a set of songs that bring together some quite outrageously different styles and put them together in a way that is coherent and highly rewarding; and while there is an element of ‘quiet/ loud’ here it is so much more than that.
Opening with a simple guitar duet, ‘Beneath Fields’ eases the listener in gently, and by the time the Baird’s etherial vocals glide in after around a minute you are already totally hooked. Like the rest of the album this is not a song that is structurally complex but has so much going on in it, especially from the two guitars and the vocal; and by the time the track kicks for home after about five minutes that feels like a bonus…just sublime.
‘Oriar’, on the other hand, fairly bursts out of the blocks with screaming fuzzy guitar, which only settles down when Baird’s siren voice intones; somehow calming the sonic tempest going on around it. This track tells me why this album works, because the quiet and loud of this album are not really there to emphasise contrast, nor are they there to provide anthemic drama. They are there because they are organic parts of what the band want to collectively do; and they are so together on it this is where the feeling of effortless comes in.
Heron Oblivion repeat this basic structure ‘Sudden Lament’, although it is more uptempo and is most obviously where that Fleetwood Mac smoothness can be heard just bubbling up through the molten guitar. It is ‘Rama’, though, that is the centrepiece of the album, and not just because it is the fourth track of seven. Weighting in at just over ten minutes it initially reminds me of early Besnard Lakes and Sleepy Sun with Baird’s vocals here proving the spark that lights the sonic fuse towards the end of each verse and into the chorus. About half way through the song dispenses with the verse/ chorus structure and goes into one of the most majestic guitar solos you’ll hear this year. The track then completely pares down as one by one the instruments drop out until only the a kick drum and snare are playing…them BAM! it all kicks back in with verve, reverb and tons of wah wah to take the track home in a way that is monumental but never overblown.
Following this epic is not an easy matter, but ‘Faro’ manages to do it because it never gets less than weird with a kind of grunge-like guitar feel, Baird switching between Sandy Denny and Patti Smith, and a riff that is simple yet highly effective. This brings us back to earth but also takes us into new and interesting directions as ‘Faro’ doesn’t as much end as self-destructs into a miasma of feedback.
Sensing that the listener is probably going to need to draw breath after all that ‘Seventeen Landscapes’ returns to a slower tempo and has that feel of never being quite focussed in terms of the way it is presented. This gives it a dreamlike feel with the mists only slowly clearing to reveal the bucolic uplands as the sun begins to shine though on this song, probably the most carefully arranged on the album.
The album closes with ‘Your Hollows’ yet another track that has me reaching for the Thesaurus because I don’t want to use ‘sublime’ all the time. This is another track that seems somehow timeless, harking back to a lost moment yet feeling bang up to date. Another amazing vocal performance by Baird, yet at around 3’30” is a moment that really personifies the album for me as she reaches for the sky with a soaring vocal which seamlessly transforms into a guitar sound. This tells me why I like this Heron Oblivion album so much, because it has so many styles, some of which I listen to every day and others, and particularly the folk elements, which I often find grating. Here they are melded together seamlessly into songs which draw out the emotions and just make me want to put this album on again and again.
Heron Oblivion came out on Sub Pop on 3th March 2016.
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