I've had it in my possession since seeing them in Boston with Jarboe and Amber Asylum on May 22nd ... but in the time since, have been busy (work, school, travelling, my own band). Now that Projekt has released it, I thought it was high time I write someting about it. (This was also posted to the Unto Ashes Yahoo! discussion list.)
I've seen more than one person contend that this is their best album, and it just may be. It's diverse (a couple tracks surprised even me), but of course always stays true to the spirit of Unto Ashes, and is consistently very intelligent, musically speaking. It has fewer tracks than __Empty Into White__, which I think works in its favor -- the continuity is more focused. Here's some thoughts and observations regarding each track:
1. "Tous Esforciez" - The perfect initiation: the listener steps over the threshold into the album's ancient, spiritual, primal world. Very solemn and reverent in tone. This is the song that was performed at keyboardist Natalia Lincoln's wedding, which, back in October, her husband Tim provided me with a beautifully packaged self-released recording of. I believe that the mix has been perfected. The sound is fuller, deeper, vaster and more oppressing. Additional percussion, gradually integerated as the song progresses, has been added. This adjustment in the arrangement well-serves the song's momentum.
2. "Winter Born" - (Previously released at the end of last year on Projekt's __Holiday Single 2__). The ideal "next step" for the album to take. Retains the all-acoustic, primordial atmosphere of the first track, "upping the ante" with a quietly menancing tone and entrapping rhythms. Resplendent three-part harmonies.
3. "Tortured By Rose Thorns" - I've heard this song several times live, and was immensely pleased to hear that this recording began with ... evil acoustic
guitar played by Katherine Burke! At the first two shows at which this song was performed, it was instrumental and only about a minute long, consisting
only of this guitar part accompanied by percussion. A mighty song, to be sure ... the bombastic militant drums at the end are great. Note the sludgy electric guitar ... doom metal finally overtly rears its head in an Unto Ashes recording!
4. "In Memory of D'Drennan" - When I talked to him at the Boston show, Michael gave me a blow-by-blow description of this song. I have to admit that I was
a bit apprehensive about it; I prefer Unto Ashes to stick to neomedieval and apocalyptic folk, and am always uncomfortable with their occassional forays
into goth dance club music. I needn't have feared; everything about this track -- the well-produced electronic drum beat, the slabby low synth tones, the death rock guitar emulating Christian Death's Rikk Agnew (although it's not credited, Michael told me that he played it ... a first, him playing electric guitar!), the remorseful vocal melody, the transition into the acoustic passage featuring operatic female vocals, the percussive clanging sound -- is GREAT.
5. "Emptiness" - Long a live favorite of mine, Michael told me that he purposely had this very pure folk song follow "In Memory" so that there would be no question about where Unto Ashes' heart still lies. Most of the song is but Mariko's lone voice and Michael's bare acoustic guitar; it's astounding how much more than that it seems.
6. "The Turning" - A dissonant, "creepy" instrumental, comprised of piano and cello, in the fine tradition of the "Runic Calendar" tracks on __Saturn Return__ and "1914" on __Empty Into White__.
7. "Three Haiku" - Wow! Unlike anything I've ever heard from Unto Ashes -- or anyone else, really -- before. Very, very hard to pin down what's going on and describe. An extreme, richly melodic, harmonious wall of acoustic and electronic textures, including magnificent three-part singing. According to the credits, the words are derived from something from the eleventh century called "The Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, also known as the '100 Poems By 100 Poets'". The music was written by Michael and Link Bentko (whom I believe I met at Unto Ashes' performance at the Vampire and Victims Ball in Salem, MA in October 2003), who is credited for laying "balalaika" on this track; which instrument in the recording it may be, I cannot decipher.
8. "The Drowning Man" - (Previously released on the __Our Voices__ Cure tribute album). Michael told me that he'd tweaked the album mix, and it shows. As I said for "Tous Esforciez", the sound is "fuller, deeper, vaster, and more oppressive." Well-produced drums, exquisite, striking string arrangement. A scathing rendition that does justice to the oh-so-perfectly depressing original (from The Cure's __Faith__).
9. "If I Come to You" - A threatening, sinister dirge, defined by low-end acoustic guitar rumbling, frantic shaky percussion, sparse, brutal drum accents, and whispered lead vocals by Michael.
10. "Lesson" - I had a hard time trying to pin down exactly what this reminded me of. Something in the early years of Projekt, like Love Spirals Downwards, or Area. I could even hear it on an early Black Tape for a Blue Girl album, like __As One Aflame Laid Bare By Desire__. Then I realized: it has a very 4AD, This Mortal Coil, sound (except perhaps the droning "dark" passage in the middle ... which I can actually picture them doing, but not so starkly). Lovely, plaintive melody sung by Mariko ... very nice, sensitive electric guitar played by someone named Bart Farar ... withheld, textural strings.
11. "Four More Years" - Droning, cacophonious noise. Perfect bridge into the next track ...
12. "Four Loom Weaver" - According to the credits, an Irish traditional dated from the nineteenth century. Completely a cappella three-part harmony between Michael, Natalia, and Mariko, with a nicely integrated recording of rain and thunder. I dig the phrasing employed by this style ... the way the chords resolve. They actually began the Boston show by performing this; Michael pointed out to me that it was about starvation ... nice!
13. "Way of the World" - a surprisingly upbeat in tone folk song. Catchy vocal (sung by Michael) and flute melodies. Beautifully plucked acoustic guitar carriess the song; hammered dulcimer is eventually layered in.
14. "Fruhling" - Finally! I have a recording of this that I can listen to at will! And wisely, the arrangement -- appalachian dulcimer, female vocals, percussion, proclamative french horn -- has gone unalttered from all the live performances I've seen. A completely exhilerating song. Mariko's operatic
vocals are ablaze.
15. "Banishment Spell" - An aural ritual comprised of erratic didjeridoo and fiercely indicting, moaning, hissing, growling, and shrieking vocals, all credited to someone identified only as "G". Reminds me of something one might hear on an World Serpent album, like the invocations performed by Freya Aswynn on Current 93's __Swastikas for Goddy__.
Discuss away, everyone!