20 August 2010

CD REVIEW: The Ascent of Everest - From This Vantage (2010, Shelsmusic)

Three years ago, in another life…

I received a box of CDs from the webmaster of a site I was writing for. As I usually did, I started stacking them in various piles…full CDs with jewel cases in pile A, cardboard sleeve promos in pile B, discs in plain paper sleeves in pile C, CDRs in pile D. Usually this would be enough for me to differentiate the deluge of material, but occasionally something would come in with packaging that stood out. It might be a CD in a metal tin, or a DVD keepcase that held a CD rather than a DVD. Sometimes it was a digipak, and other times, it was packaging unlike any I’d come across before.

On this particular day, which might have been very early 2007 but was more than likely sometime in 2006, I came across just such a disc, in a thick paper/card sleeve that was neither digipak nor mini-LP style in design. The cover was all line art…for a moment I thought it was hand drawn on the packaging, but came to realise it was in fact a printed package. On the spine was writ, in small cursive lettering, The Ascent of Everest how lonely sits the city!

Intrigued, I set it aside, and as I placed my variegated stacks of other promos and CDs in safe places, I slid the black CD from this sleeve and put it in my CD drive on my PC.

Unfortunately for the rest of the discs I got in that box, this one refused to leave my CD player for what seemed like weeks. As you’ll read in my retro-review of the album (which will be published here sometime later today in its original unedited format), I found myself pretty well hooked by the strange music that AoE had created…a mix of post-rock, orchestration, found sound, audio verite, and samples, seamlessly merged together to create something unlike any music in my collection. While I was familiar with post-rock in a general sense, this was one of my first real deep explorations of the style, and I was smitten by tAoE. So much so, in fact, that even though How Lonely Sits The city would be re-released in a very nice digipak cover 2 years later by Shelsmusic, I didn’t plump for it, instead cherishing the more handmade packaging of the initial pressing (complete with fold out poster, I might add!).

Things would be, to me it seemed, very quiet from the tAoE camp for a long time. Maybe it’s just the lack of similar circles…post and Prog, while certainly having many stylistic and sonic similarities, are still very much separate genres of music. But it seemed to me that the band had gone quiet for too long.

By chance earlier this year I came across a link to a free download of a split 12” digital EP from a band called We All Inherit the Moon…and the Ascent of Everest. Finally, I said to myself, they have some new music out! I quickly downloaded it and listened. tAoE only had 18 minutes on this EP, but I devoured it like a man brought in from the fields after a long day’s toil without food. The music had changed somewhat…it was more orchestral, more symphonic, yet retained the epic sweep and sombre feel that had drawn me into their music in the first place.

2 weeks ago I found out that The Ascent of Everest released a new album, From This Vantage.

They released it in JUNE.

Frustrated, cursing whatever entities were ensuring that I didn’t find out about new material from this band at all, I ensured that a copy would be heading my way. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. Every day I’d check the mailbox, and no CD.

Finally, it arrived. From Switzerland, no less.

Today, I write about it.

Back when I reviewed HLSTC, The Ascent of Everest was a septet. They’ve since expanded to an octet line-up, and if you look below, you can see just how orchestrated their sound must be. Viola, cello, glockenspiel, French horn, tuba, violin…of these, perhaps only violin can be said to be a standard instrument in progressive music. These instruments alone would set The Ascent of Everest apart from the standard prog band paying their dues and releasing albums today. What sets them even further apart is their approach to songwriting and arranging. While this is definitively rock music at the heart of things, it is so dense yet atmospheric. If that sounds like a blatant contradiction in terms, well, I can only admit that you are correct. It is essentially contradictory. However, one listen will show the truth of that statement. The music features dense layers of instrumentation…layers of guitar, strings, orchestral percussion, vocals…but it never feels heavy or ponderous. At any time a single instrumental or vocal voice can rise from the mix and soar into the heavens, delicately balanced and fragile in its musical solitude. It’s strange to explain in words, but…it’s like watching a single bird fly out of a dense and dark copse of trees and fly into a sun-drenched sky. That is The Ascent of Everest’s music in pictures.

Unlike the previous How Lonely Sits the City, From This Vantage sees somewhat more tightly composed pieces of music. It’s an evolution; while the music is definitively the same band, it has matured and developed more subtlety. The 8 tracks that make up From This Vantage range in length from an all too brief 2:08 to a slightly more stately 7:24. Overall, the album clocks in at just over 42 minutes…practically an EP these days, but a perfect length for listening to if you’re an old, wizened progger like me who remembers when albums were 12” in diameter and made of black vinyl with grooves cut into them (as a matter of fact, From This Vantage is also available in coloured vinyl for those of you lucky enough to have a working turntable…I’ll provide details at the end). Packaging is brilliant and evocative…the CD is in a tri-fold gatefold digipak, with sepia toned cover art that is ageless and aged both. The liner notes and lyrics are printed in gold tone ink, which does make them a bit harder to read, but ties the whole thing together beautifully.

Usually when I’m reviewing an album these days, you notice that I go into a lot of depth as I describe tracks. I’m not going to say it’s harder to do that there, but at the same time, I also don’t want to create the illusion that this is an album where individual tracks are generally excisable for individual listening. While it’s true that each song can stand on its own as a defined composition exclusive of those around it, this is a case where the album as a whole really demands straight through listening. Realistically, it’s not that hard to section off 42 minutes of your day for listening. Having said this, I certainly do have thoughts on each of the tracks that make up this new release…

Our opening track ‘Trapped Behind Silence ‘ is a gentle builder, setting a musical tone for the journey to follow. All instrumental, it is the equivalent of an overture in many ways without necessarily introducing themes we’d be revisiting throughout. Vocals join the mix on ‘Return to Us,’ while ‘Dark, Dark My Light’ features some amazing strings, with tons of cello and viola adding swaths of darkness. Violins balance precariously above this deep, dark maelstrom of sound, while percussive accents set the stage for chiming guitar, adding brightness and light in the shadow. Female vocals on this track keen and soothe from the distance, more a musical voice than a featured soloist, and this eerie use of vocals is one that sets this release apart again from the other post-rock albums I’ve heard…even their debut.

Piano and violin introduce ‘Safely Caged in Bone.’ A simple drum beat, bright and dry, carries the opening section along as bass is added to the mix. Generally speaking this piece feels like an odd collaboration between rock band and string quartet, but it’s a result that’s musically pleasing. Again we have some wonderful female vocals, this time with a single male voice hidden behind singing a different countering melodic line. I almost wish his vocals were mixed a little higher so we could hear the varying harmonies and dissonances between the voices.

If I were forced at gunpoint to pick a single track as a highlight on From This Vantage, I think it would be ‘Sword and Shield,’ and I am not saying that because I am a progressive music listener and this happens to be the longest track on the release. Strings, evocative vocals…and in many cases, vocals sans any (or with very minimal) musical backing. Chills. I get chills listening to this song every time, and I have yet to be able to figure out exactly how or why that is, even though I can point out every place in the song that my skin goes all goose-bumpy. Frankly, I don’t want to investigate so deeply that I find out the how and why and lose the magic. All I know is that this song is fantastic, it takes everything the band does so well, from orchestration and arranging through choices of musical tones and voices and mixes them in just the right combinations. On an album where each song serves the release, strengthening those around it, this is the fulcrum, the lynchpin, the center point.

We certainly don’t go downhill from there. ‘Every Fear’ ratchets up the darkness and tension with viola matched with some distorted guitar lines that create an awkward and disturbing soundscape. Cello comes in with a melancholy melody, while drum accents break up the ambience. Add in some deeply emotionally delivered male vocals, and the stage is set. Tracks like this really make the argument that The Ascent of Everest is more a chamber ensemble merged with rock band than anything else, and it blurs those lines perfectly. An all too short ‘In and Through’ (our short song at 2:06) fades from the huge musical flourish at the end of ‘Every Fear,’ and cleanses the aural palate with a gentler mix of strings and drums/bass, preparing us for one final longer composition to come.

This then is ‘From This Vantage,’ the album’s title track. Closing out the release is a piece that opens with looped, processed, percussive sounds, over top of which rest several layers of violin and cello. Drums play counterpoint to the loop. Female vocals have an almost dream-like quality to them, with echo adding to their distance and ethereal, ephemeral quality. ‘From This Vantage’ feels and sounds like a musical iteration of waves lapping at the shore, ebbing and building in cycles, with the quiet sections offering as much beauty as the heavier bits offer intensity and a touch of controlled chaos. As cymbals and sustained guitar chords fade out, the listener can finally take a breath…at least, that’s usually how I feel after listening.

From This Vantage is NOT How Lonely Sits The City, Part II. It is The Ascent of Everest doing what they do best; crafting dense, layered compositions that blur the borders between chamber music and rock music. If you’re willing to look beyond the sheltered, staid walls of what prog was, then The Ascent of Everest is waiting for you, to show you where progressive music could be heading.

Track Listing:
Trapped Behind Silence 2:45
Return to Us 6:30
Dark, Dark My Light 6:08
Safely Caged in Bone 6:48
Sword and Shield 7:24
Every Fear 5:42
In and Through 2:06
From This Vantage 5:07

Band Members:
Ashley Morris – viola, vocals
Casey Kaufman – cello, vocals
Chris Click – synth, rhodes, organ, clarinet, tuba, vocals
Devin Lamp – guitar, synth, french horn, piano, vocals
Dillon Smith – violin, vocals
Drew Binkley – bass
Jeff Ellinger – drums, vocals
Rob McKinney – guitar, percussion, melodica, glockenspiel, vocals


To purchase From This Vantage on vinyl, click here:
180 gram colored vinyl, multicolor hand screened covers and inserts, hand numbered, Limited to 300 copies

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