By: Nick Dodds
We Lost The Sea | website | facebook | twitter | bandcamp |
“They were here….. and now they’re gone.”: Challenger Part 1 – Flight.
Make no mistake, this is not a happy record. This is not a bbq, Saturday night ‘singalong around a fire with your friends’ record. This is a heavy slab. It’s a pressure that weighs upon your chest, pressing down relentlessly for the duration of this stunning release, until (of all people) Ronald Reagan’s voice appears in your ears to deliver the final killing blow. It’s also stunningly beautiful. Take your breath away beautiful… but it’s the beauty of seeing a hearse drive away with a loved one inside it, and knowing that they’ll live forever inside you, but you’ll never see them again.
This album is dripping with sadness, loss, and glorious failure. It’s an amazing release, and I’m actually a little scared to review it. I hope I do it justice. Perhaps it’s best if you imagine this review as the enthusiastic stranger at a bar after 5 pints finding out that you like the same music, and excitedly yelling at you for 20 minutes.
We Lost The Sea have been around for a while now, and this is their third album, but their first instrumental one. A band re-inventing themselves in such an ambitious fashion is always fraught with potential pitfalls, but in my opinion this is a masterstroke. A nimble dodge of the usual tropes, and a carefully thought out, intelligent and passionate release that drips catharsis, closure and amazing storytelling, without actually singing a single word. I don’t know many bands that can do that.
This album is a carefully thought out celebration of human attempts, endeavours, honour, love and loss. It’s palpable on this release, dripping out of your speakers and enticing you deeper, akin to the cave dive David Shaw embarked upon. It’s an epitaph to faceless men and women that you may not have known, but after you hear this you certainly will. I’m also going to do something a little different as Matt Harvey (@matterata), guitarist in the band has made stunning artwork for each song, which I shall present here.
The album opens with ‘A Gallant Gentleman’, an ode to Captain Lawrence Oates of the Scott South Pole Expedition who sacrificed himself for the greater good in 1912. A lot of you may have heard his famous words in school, as “I am just going outside and may be some time” might be one of the most understated goodbyes of all time. Imagine huddling in a tent, blizzards howling outside, barely coherent and knowing that all your exploits failed… Only to find some inner strength and stumble off into the black night, dying cold, lonely and buried forever in a shapeless white snowdrift, the tundra claiming you as its own. For your friends. And the music matches this perfectly. Slowly chiming guitars build and swirl like the snowstorms of that night, a girls choir eerily echoing in the background doubling as the Antarctic wind until the song peaks, cymbals crashing and a trio of guitars rolling over you, the cadence fixed & forced, lurching, stumbling and inexorably marching forwards until you fall, left with nothing but the ‘wind’ swirling around you. And while this is a lonely sacrifice (and let’s face it, dying from hypothermia alone in the night is pretty lonely) somehow the music retains an uplifting quality. Out of death comes life. It’s a delicate balancing act and one that’s pulled off with aplomb.
‘Bogatyri’ is next, recounting the sacrifice of Valeri Bezpalov, Alexie Ananenko & Boris Baranov at the Chernobyl disaster. Three brave men who selflessly sacrificed themselves to open a valve in heavily irradiated water to save countless lives, then buried in lead coffins ten days later. One can only imagine what they must have felt, their bodies breaking down cell by cell, day by day. A selfless act that consigns them to the annals of history, leaving wives without husbands and children without fathers. Not a failure per se as their actions saved many, but a noble sacrifice. An act resulting in certain death. I’d had the privilege of seeing this live the week before as the band supported This Will Destroy You, and was suckered hard by this rollicking, bleak and heavy track. The Twin Peaks inspired bassline and cymbal work that kicks in around the two minute mark is sublime, all smoky nightclub and grizzled chanteuse leaning into a microphone to warn her listeners of the impending doom… Until the guitars gradually take over, leading you on for a minute or so as the crescendo builds and builds. And then – bang. There’s a time change and you’re pulled into the dark, irradiated water along with the Bogatyri (a Ukrainian folklore tale of three valiant knights). Constrained and dark, choking you slowly as the guitars peak again and again, washing over you as the bass rumbles and jars, the cymbals swirling around your head. It swirls for ages, drowning you in sound and an absence of light, just as our three brave men would have experienced. This is 12 minutes of your life that passes all too quickly, until all you’re left with are the decaying guitars, symbolic of their frail bodies at the end.
I confess, before this release I had never heard of David Shaw. Now, I’ll always know him. Before you read further I strongly suggest you watch this video, which is the actual last dive in question:
Unsurprisingly given the tone of this album, this is heavy stuff. You’re watching a man die right in front of your eyes. Attempting to do something selfless, brave & noble – and failing. At 271 metres underwater. I don’t dive but that is an insane depth to dive to – the human body is just not designed for it. And 5 minutes at that depth equals over 12 hours coming back up to avoid nitrogen narcosis. Again, there really aren’t enough words to describe how full on this is. But there is this music.
Cloying, claustrophobic and doomed, this track lurches deeper and deeper, beginning with the audio of Dave’s last dive. The water rushes over you and you start to sink as a distorted wall of feedback wraps its fingers around you until you push through to the clean, sterile guitar tones. These build musically (but not sonically) as Dave’s audio fades out, leaving you with the track. You sink deeper, drums matching the beating of your heart as you pass fifty, then 100 metres. And then time slows. The music stops. All is quiet, tranquil and serene. Then a country inspired guitar twang cuts through, wrapping around your torso and pulling you down into the depths. Like Dave, you go willingly. Unlike Dave, you’re coming back. The guitar and cello parts start to entwine, the drums mashing into your head along with the bass as you feel the floor of the cave under your feet. Then things explode, lurching around your head as the guitars wail, their cacophony building over minutes, not seconds, leaving you in a trance until twelve minutes in everything comes together in a glorious dark, sinful melody that for me is a fitting soundtrack to Dave’s last dive. Musically this is the equivalent of nitrogen narcosis, leaving you ‘drunk’ and unsure of what’s just happened. All you know is that it’s cold, dark and deep.
It’s deep, you’re alone and playing with a body that’s been there for ten years. And soon you’ll be joining him. And yet in this darkness and death there is still a sliver of light, as David Shaw kept his promise to Deon Dryer’s parents. He brought him back. Four days later Dave and Deon’s bodies were pulled to the surface. A promise kept – at the highest cost of all.
It’s a fairly safe bet that most of the Western world is aware of the Challenger disaster – we either experienced it live or have seen the footage numerous times since that fateful day in 1986. Possibly the most dramatic failure of the American space program, it hammered home to a new generation the dangers, pitfalls and sheer science & skill involved in getting our feeble bodies to break free of the bonds of our atmosphere and up into the unknown. But on January 28th of that year it was not to be, a nailbiting 73 seconds permanently etched into the collective consciousness. I don’t know if it’s deliberate or not, but the intro riff of this track is close enough to 73 seconds that watching video of the launch while listening to this is an eerie experience. That is, after we have a beautiful speech by William S. Burroughs on Dreams from 1980. “We’re not there yet” indeed.
The lonely, melancholic guitar starts things off after the spoken word/ambient intro, all empty sadness, sorrow and reflection on things that could have been, yet weren’t. It’s poignant and deep, circuiting the edge of trancelike structure while everything slowly builds around you, a harsh guitar melody climbing out of the fog. A driving beat kicks in around the nine minute mark, bleak, and lacking hope. And this is yet another section where having three guitarists pays off in dividends, as it allows space to build and expand upon a riff, droning and weaving around the anchoring of the bass & drums… But only briefly. All too soon we’re taken into space (an overarching theme on this album, but this time literal), back with the fated crew as a lone guitar line soars through everything, cutting you with its distortion. It’s all melancholic country twang here, reminding me of lonely journeys through dust caked back roads. And then a moog-esque keyboard melody kicks in and tension is immediately there around you. And with a sample from the Challenger launch we’re there in the climax of the song, 19 minutes in. It’s glorious. Special. Every band member beating the living shit out of their instruments, wringing every last bent, distorted note out of them that they can. Not just playing the music, but being consumed by it.
And then all too soon, it’s gone. Over. And we’re left with samples of the crowd from January 28th. And with a thick ‘Jersey’ accent we have a devastated woman sum up this album better than I ever could, with the quote that opens this review. It’s powerful, poignant and a little bit soul destroying.
And then we’re into the home stretch. The ‘swan song’ indeed. And yet this track, while similar to the rest of the album differs somewhat. It allows a sliver of light in. It’s not happy or joyous in the beginning, but affirming. Guitars providing a chiming release as soft cymbal work and (I’m assuming) mallet-hit floor toms gently push you forwards towards the edge of the cliff. You’ve come this far – there’s no point going back now. And then we’re falling, wrapped in that blanket of quiet despair that has been prevalent throughout. But if ever there was a slow fall, this is it. You have time to examine your surroundings as the band slowly build the track, layer after layer, until what is possibly the only major chord on the album explodes and before you hit the ground you’re caught. And brought up. It’s an affirmation of all the heavy shit that’s come before, and a promise that there is light to come. As Dylan Thomas said: “Do not go gentle into that good night”, and this battle helps confirm that.
Is it telling that they chose not to include the line “our hopes and our journeys continue” from Reagan’s closing speech? I like to think so. I like to think that it’s superfluous, as this beautiful music tells you that. This is the hand on your shoulder from a loved one while you’re at your lowest ebb, the smile of a friend as you bare your soul. There’s no judgement here. Just beautiful, special music.
So here we are. This isn’t just an album – it’s a baring of humanity’s soul. It’s a realisation that you can fuck up, fail and fall and not only have people done it before, but there will be someone, anyone there for you. As a band they’ve managed to write songs that match the tone and feel of each story that they’re telling, along with stunning artwork to go with it.
This is a special, unique release. This is a band going through dark days and coming out the other side, by embracing it and inviting us to share this with them. This is not something that comes along every day, and I thank them for it. If you ever have a discussion with someone and want to prove the power of music – reach for this.
Now if you don’t mind me, I’m going to go and listen to it again. They were here and now they’re gone indeed.
This review is dedicated to Chris Torpy.