The Dead Sea Apes have been a staple of my music writing ever since I began in 2013. I think I’m right that they are the only band to make my ‘Essential’ album list every year, and I always look forward to their next release… because you never quite know what that is going to entail.
If you were to listen to their releases back to back, and I have done on more than one occasion, you would probably notice certain affectations which might give them away. You would not, however, accuse them of ploughing the same sonic furrows.
A case in point came recently when I was travelling down to see them play in Belper… the scene, if not the same venue, as their seminal and spontaneous first performance with Adam Stone. I was listening to ‘The Free Territory,’ not so much as preparation but because I realised that I had not got round to hearing it yet… such is the volume of new music I get sent.
When the gig started it was something of a contrast with Adam Stone again performing with the band tracks from the previous two albums ‘Sixth Side of the Pentagon‘ and ‘Warheads‘. It was an incredible gig with Stone giving a powerful and passionate vocal performance above tracks that were dramatic and intense… all played in front of a backdrop showing the Threads documentary about the impact of nuclear war on the city of Sheffield. This was chilling, because that’s where I live… but doubly so because it was shown on TV in 1985 when I was the only person awake in an otherwise eerily still hospital ward… atmospheric does not even begin to describe that performance for me.
If you haven’t guessed yet I mention this as further evidence of the diversity of the Dead Sea Apes’ output… because, while the the punk anger of that gig is not replicated here, there is a certain existential vehemence that links the two… and indeed all of the band’s albums.
This is evident from the outset on ‘The Free Territory’ as the opening track, ‘The Dispossessed’ does not so much start as plummet… it drags you immediately onto a soundscape that is darkly menacing.. what feels to me like a ten minute tour on the dark recesses of the psyche… on and on it goes pulling you farther in like a black hole consuming all around it… dramatic, and by the fifth or sixth listen, containing a sort of ghostly wonder… a spectral emptiness that becomes idiosyncratically endearing.
After that ‘Falling Moon’ is what I can only describe as persistently ambient… I have long argued that great ambient music is by no means passive; and so it is here. Based around a central pattern of drones this track exploits the disturbance in the psyche that the previous track creates… for me this meant that what initially feels troubling and sinister gradually settles to feel soothing… a track that gives solace, yet in a way that I struggle to explain.
That’s quite a first side of vinyl that already had me wondering what the obverse would bring. ‘The Recognition’ is a track that retains the overall atmosphere of the album, but seems to connect at an even deeper level than previously. Whether its the sheer emptiness that it seems to engender, or the tender guitar work, this is a number that seems to somehow bring me into harmony with my surroundings…
‘Diaspora’ is perhaps the one track so far that I would have said was a Dead Sea Apes number… the guitar is more familiar from other albums… a rare thing on this double album given that the other tracks represent so much more of a departure. This feels like we’re ‘touching base’ in the context of this set, something that is a welcome as the otherness of the other tracks here.
Then comes the title track… twenty minutes… the third side… a number that is both glacial in atmosphere and movement. This is the sound of the inside of my mind… a distorted miasma of confused rhythms and meanings that, over time, seem to coalesce into something more tangible. This is a track to be with… a track that, when you really get inside it (or does it get inside you) is like some sort of psychological rubiks cube as it allows the six sides of your perception to gradually fall into place… and as you progress so does the intensity of the track as you enter ‘The Free Territory’ as you cast off your mental shackles as the moment of utopia is reached… the great struggle abates… a centrepiece track of what thus far has been an amazing release.
I’m not sure where to go after that… perhaps this is a good moment for me to come up for air while listening to ‘Sub Rosa’ to say that, yes, this is a new direction for the Dead Sea Apes. In many ways it is the album of a band in transition, featuring now departed bassist Nick Harris on a number of tracks. It also very much reminds me of last year’s album by Slows (‘A Great Big Sign From Venus’) which made my ‘end of year‘ list last year. ‘Sub Rosa’ is no exception to this, also featuring The Myrrors‘ guitarist Nik Rayne (who also designed the sleeve) and is just superb in its execution, a slow comedown after the intensity of the previous three sides of wax.
This is followed by ‘Stateless’ (also featuring Rayne) which is very much reflective of its title… giving the listener a sense of being adrift… it is a floatation tank of a track in which you are invited to experience the confused and bewildering sense of being rootless. It is a piece of music that just seems to exist in its own space, dragging you from your moorings and, as it finishes, sort of leaves you in mid-air yet with something definite to reflect on.
I am not sure whether this piece is totally coherent. If it isn’t it is probably because there is a lot to make sense of here. This is a serious (double) album for serious times. It is a set which psychologically leads and reflects the era in which we live as existentially played out. It is also an album which, I imagine, will surface different feelings and different reactions at different times… it represents the pool of out own reality into which we can peer to see both our own reflection and the depth of our own situations.
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