One of my albums of the year last year was Kuro’s self-titled recording. I liked it because listening to it invited me to stare directly into what Elvis Costello termed the ‘deep dark truthful mirror’. It was a series of tracks, movements almost, that you just had to sit with, but when you did something quite powerful happened. I have now, quite by accident because I was looking for something else, come across an album that gives me a similar perspective when I listen to it. Although here the feeling is perhaps one with a little more agitation as I plumb the depths of this music; and this music really does go deep. While this has hit me unexpectedly what is perhaps more surprising is that I am writing about an album of drone doom Tuba music… and finding it to be an intensely moving experience.
To understand this album, though, you really need to know about the backstory. ORE we originally a duo, but have more recently become the work of Sam Underwood who explains the concept of the album as follows:
The title is derived from the fact that I failed to complete this album the first time around. I started it as a gift to my father when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2014. But I failed to complete it before his death 8 months later. I subsequently aimed to complete it but found that too hard…so had to start the whole thing afresh. This is now ready, Belatedly.
Aged 35 – the average age at which fewer cells regenerate than die – Sam Underwood left his previous job to pursue his dream of being a musician. He also put down his guitar, intent on exploring what he hoped would be a rich sound world; a compound formed of doom metal and low brass. ORE was formed.
For me, playing the tuba was the first time I really felt a connection – in every sense – with a musical instrument. An extension of my own pipework; my resonant frequency. A truly physical instrument to play.
(From the Box Records Bandcamp page)
So it is that right from the beginning, opening with ‘Scarn’, you can feel the emotion in this album, the deep sound of the tuba vibrating through your body. There is something about the sound which is at the same time redolent of a town centre on a cold winter’s day, and something more elegiac… the latter of which is the key description of this album. It feels like a requiem in many ways, and certainly has that ritualistic feel to it. The sense of passing from one stage to another, being from one period of one’s life to another; or something more terminal. Either way there is a sense of mortality that passes through this music, albeit in different ways. This is because it is not a set of similar songs, but quite a variety here.
‘Silicate’ is one one level quite mournful and downbeat, but the intonation of the tuba together what sounds like a tabla gives the track a greater depth and wider sense culturally. Like the first track there’s a real meditative tone here that seems to get more entrenched with each listen. This is expanded with ‘Antimony’ the rtythm of which reminded me of New Order’s ‘In A Lonely Place’; a funereal beat that it just as moving when those lyrics are replaced by the strong yet somehow fragile sound of the tuba… I’m practically in bits listening to this.
After that the sound of ‘Bauxite’ gradually takes the listener if anything even deeper into the cave, with even darker pools to stare into. This is a sparse sound that leaves a great deal of space for you to add your own meaning and reflections… the music taking the role of a councillor drawing the feelings out of you… an emotional and quite draining process. The sense grief and loss is once again palpable. After these four tracks there is a real sense that we are in a very different place, whether this is a form of ritual space is really up to the listener but once there ‘Vanadium’ provides a contrasting atmosphere with its jazz percussion and an atmosphere similar to some of Michael Nyman’s compositions. This definitely sets up in a new place, a place of exploration; something that is further suggested by ‘Khyam’ which feels like the central track to this suite of music. The simplicity of previous tracks is put aside for something more complex and colourful. There is such a mixture of sounds here… it’s like you are in a series of contemporaneous spaces with Eastern strings seemingly competing with what sounds like Tibetan nose flutes and many other aural signifiers that offer up a cacophony that is almost too much to take in… there is a real sense of overload here, of being subsumed and totally overcome… by the end you really do just want it to STOP!
And it does…
‘Beck’ provides a return to what feels like the relative sanity of the melancholic, but also a greater feeling of acceptance… the confusion of the past waining perhaps into something more constructive only to be waylaid by the Carpenter-esque terrors of ‘Sof’. There is a real undercurrent of fear here with this unsettling electronic drone almost drowning out the drone of the tuba. Again there is the sense of competing emotions, although here it is perhaps more binary.
After that ‘Thomas’ feels more soothing, a track of healing that is even more sparse than anything that has gone before. To my ears there is the effect of rain, perhaps washing away and cleansing… which seems to morph into the sound of a brush. All this is suggestive to me of a new beginning, an acceptance and sense of moving forward. Gone is the feeling of stasis of the early tracks… this feels like movement.
And then… ‘Kazuyuki’ is perhaps the most experimental and out there part of the album. It is a track of new ideas and new visions. There is an optimism here that seems missing for most of the time. Then half way through it springs into life… life, so absent for most of the time here. There’s a spring in the step as the musicians ply their trade with a new found freedom as if experiencing this release en mass. This serves to leave the listener in a good place, a strong place… stronger for the experience of listening to this musical cycle, if not whole again then getting there.
This is a remarkable album of confusion, despair and loss, and album that takes the listener through the stages of grief/ change/ ritual in a manner that is both reflective and unsettling. If you listen to it closely you can get a real sense of being there with Underwood and his fellow musicians, and could well emerge with greater self-knowledge and perhaps even wisdom. That, in a sense, is very much up to you; Underwood’s part in this is to explore and reflect his own feelings and experiences in this work and provide the listener with the tools to undertake this journey themselves… however abstractly. That, for me, is the power of this album, an album of tuba doom drone… remarkable!
‘Belatedly’ is available now from Box Records.