No Moon by Black WingRelease date: December 11, 2020
Label: The Flenser
No Moon marks the second album from the project Black Wing. It being another outlet for the talents of Dan Barrett, aka Giles Corey, and one half of the founding members and principal composers of Have a Nice Life.
The debut record from Black Wing, …Is Doomed, has quite rightly been referred to as a contemporary classic of electronica inflected post-punk, or ‘chillwave’. Despite the success of and love for his various other musical endeavours there have been many who have not-so-secretly wished that every new announcement making reference to Dan would include some news on future Black Wing recordings. 2020 does, after all, mark five years since the release of …Is Doomed.
Earlier in the year, those not-so-patient fans got their wish, as the Enemies List Home Recordings label founder, revealed that he actually had been working on tracks all this time, honing a piece of work. However, in six months of lockdown, he had become inspired to write far more, finishing some material and writing entirely new tracks about how he was feeling, and they turned out to finally belong under the moniker Black Wing. They would be revealed via long-time co-conspirators The Flenser, in the form of No Moon, a full-length record clocking in at just shy of an hour. Safe to say, anticipation in certain corners of the internet, reached something akin to fever pitch.
Dan Barrett seems, to me, looking in but removed as I am, as the kind of artist who refuses to put his name to a poor release. Of course, as with anything, there will be positive and negative reviews, and for some it just “won’t be for them”, but in terms of overall universal reaction – as those aggregate websites are want to dub it – Dan comes out on the right side, time and time again. In that regard, he feels like the equivalent post-punk figure to Aaron Turner is for post-metal / experimental sludge metal. Although, it appears Dan is a figure that has so far avoided becoming a person the scene loves to hate (for no discernible reason whatsoever).
Barrett has said of No Moon; “Quarantine was profoundly isolating. With writing this record, more than anything I just wanted to prove to myself that I could make something out of it. That ended up being a lot of songs about feeling isolated, a lot of ‘trapped in my own head’ moments. I think that was a lot of people’s experience as well.”
With that in mind, the album opens with ‘Bollywood Apologetics’, a track that immediately immerses you back into the separate room in Barrett’s mind wherein the Black Wing universe resides. All the essentials are here – the post-punk gloom from …Is Doomed (and of course also recognisable from his other projects), the spacey, minimal electronica that marks Black Wing as unique within his oeuvre, and – although lesser here than on the debut LP – the prevalence of drums and percussion (both real and programmed) that punctuate the overriding lullaby-for-the-end-times haze.
‘Bollywood Apologetics’ is one of the most vibrant tracks on the record, creating a sense of purpose, movement and energy before Barrett inevitably drags us down into a deeper, darker morass of emotion. In the meantime, however, the opener can almost be described as ‘bright’, with its shimmering percussion and arpeggiated electronica roiling above it. Only Dan’s plaintive vocals give a sense of the ennui to come. Without wanting to labour the clear link between this album’s inception and influence and quarantine/lockdown, perhaps this opener signifies the dread about the future, while remaining largely hopeful, as we all were in the first few weeks when coronavirus hit Europe and North America, that it would only be… a few weeks, maybe?… before our national medical community got a hold over the pandemic and we returned to our erstwhile carefree lives. I’m interested in what the title signifies, although I can only assume it might be in reference to the much disputed death of Bollywood actor, Sushant Singh Rajput. But perhaps that’s just me…
‘Ominous 80s’, on the other hand, is an evocative and easily identifiable title. Here Barrett employs a lead dark synth lead that could come right out of more disturbing, lesser-known tracks of Soft Cell. The track is awash with resignation and, although it keeps a beat that is still more pacey than expected, it moves far less, creating the sense of someone imagining nights out of the past where, quite frankly, they would have preferred to be home. In the context of the making of the record, this employs one of Barrett’s favourite lyrical and compositional strictures, not often used in music – that of irony. It raises a smile that turns into a grimace in the listener. How true, how true.
The following track, ‘Always a Last Time’, is a five-minute track that shuffles along with a listlessness that I think we’ve all felt many times during 2020. It’s feverish in the way one feels unsettled and quixotic at 3am, rather than in the throes of a high temperature. It is a longing for rest, for sleep, and one trying to force the body and mind into supplication. But the restlessness is still felt internally, even if, on the surface, one attempts a disquieting version of contemplative serenity. A curio on the album, for sure, but a sonic offering that only Dan and perhaps this project could usher forth as something genuinely arresting, despite its emotionally resonant peculiarity.
‘In This Real Life, Jesus Christ’ will be a familiar track to those who have followed the Black Wing announcement in recent weeks and months, as it was the second ‘single’ released to whet the appetite for No Moon, and the one that seemed to inspire the most conversation and excitement. With good reason. It is somehow both the ‘catchiest’ (calm down) and one of the most devastating tracks on the album, with the repeated “this is real life,” serving as both earworm and a recurring hammer-blow on the mental wellbeing of the listener. This is the track that bears an uncanny reminiscence to one of those scenes in a film of television show where the therapist (or deeply contemplative, wise friend) repeats the same short and simple question or phrase to a character, and each response delves a little deeper, uncovering another grain of truth, until the questioned breaks down on the chez-lounge or rests his head on the cool wooden surface of the bar they’re sat at, uncovering some fundamental truth and fault of character or, until then, a deeply buried, shameful secret. Through repeated enquiry, we cut through the lies we tell others and ourselves, and shed light on something at our core, even if it may not be something entirely welcome.
‘Always Hurt’ is the shortest track on No Moon, and at first, I almost treated it as something more akin to a segue. However, upon further inspection, the track is a gorgeous moment on the record – a track that quells the disturbed waters ‘In This Real Life, Jesus Christ’ has caused, but without entirely refuting it, continuing its ominous sonic palette, but in far more hushed tones. This contrasts enormously with following track, ‘Vulnerable’, which sounds anything but. It’s a shocking sonic wake-up, with blasting noise and a jarring, insistent pulse. Although, I can appreciate the concept of what Barrett was trying to realise here, this particular aspect of the record’s sound design is, to my ear, pretty egregious. Despite, both Black Wing and Barrett’s other project’s skill at producing moments on records of profound contrast that serve as bolts to alter the aspect one views the entire LP, or simply to pivot volume or rhythm, ‘Vulnerable’ is quite simply not measured enough. It seems ill-fitting to No Moon, and although one could easily view it as the sonic equivalent of a panic attack conjured by the claustrophobia of living inside or the creeping agoraphobia many of us now feel having grown accustomed to our sedentary ‘stay at home’ daily routine, it still doesn’t tally musically with its sonic counterparts on the LP. Removed from the project and placed on one side of a 7”, I would be praising the track for its fearlessness, and its ability to spread the wings (sorry, not sorry) of Barrett’s occasional alter-ego. But in the context of the album, I see it as a rare misstep, an opinion I am sure others will take issue with, but there you go.
The aforementioned track seems particularly out of step when, if one does imagine it removed from the track-list, ‘Always Hurt’ transitions so very nicely into ‘Sleep Apneac’. From ‘Always Hurt’ onwards, with ‘Vulnerable’ acknowledged, each track grows in length, creating a vast, expansive close to the LP. ‘Sleep Apneac’ uses a sample that sounds like one of those classic phonograph records, with some reserved use of brass instrumentation, before it is slowly subsumed into some warm drones. Some energetic percussions gently burst forth as the electronic elements of the track coalesce around the simple structure the drums provide. Its spare use synths, that create another head-nodding moment on the record, feel like they could have come from one of the more languid takes on a Dais release, from Choir Boy or Drab Majesty. Dan’s recognisable voice and vocal recording underpins the final leg of the track however, meaning no-one could mistake it for anything but Black Wing.
‘Choir of Assholes/You Think It’ll Make You Happy but It Won’t’ is a track that begins to expand the album’s universe, even when one can tell Barrett’s own world has begun to drastically contract due to Covid. It repeats the device ‘In This Life, Jesus Christ’ used before, with a similarly stark phrase used over and over, as a sample from an interview about someone wanting to better themselves, stating truthfully, yet painfully and bluntly, “you just have to get over this”. Similarly, to the first time this methodology has been exhibited on No Moon, Barrett’s ability to lay bare the human psyche – to get to the crux of some intangible ache or angst – is uncanny. Without our worldwide shared experience of lockdowns, this track would still hit hard, but with the context of how and why the record was written, as well as the fact that for many of us we are not out of the woods yet, despite some promising scientific breakthroughs recently, it hits all the harder. There have been some fine lockdown records, and some very good ones choosing to focus on the situation rather than relying on memories of yesterday or flights of fancy for the future, and while I certainly don’t want to reduce No Moon down to “a lockdown record” [after all, about half of this material was written between 2015 and 2019], ‘Choir of Assholes/You Think It’ll Make You Happy but It Won’t’ is about as good an encapsulation of how I’ve certainly felt in recent months, as I think I’m likely to get.
No Moon closes with the thirteen and a half minute epic, ‘Twinkling’. Black Wing leaves the best to last. Becoming ever more expansive without losing direction or heart, ‘Twinkling’ is a gorgeous long-form composition from Dan, underpinned by driving percussion, another delightful twisting and turning electronic motif and his signature vocals. At its midpoint it blurs into some beautiful droning tones, more reminiscent of post-rock or something Four Tet might create, than the attributes that made previous drones dark and turn tracks into clouded melancholy. Here, finally, there is a sense of hope… It wouldn’t be Dan if this isn’t somewhat undercut by a noisy finale that while not eclipsing the beauty of the central third of the song, does usher forth a note of doubt about whether everything will be quite as rosy. After all, perhaps the hardest thing once we exit quarantines and lockdowns, is returning to our former lives. The problems we experienced there – the doubts, the pitfalls – are waiting for our return.
The sophomore record from Black Wing delivers in spades and will please fans of old and will surely bring on board an entire new legion of fans. Overall, No Moon is a fantastic record, only punctuated by one clear misstep in this reviewer’s opinion. An hours’ worth of material is probably more than many hoped for from Black Wing in 2020, and so the album really is a gift. Let’s hope that we don’t need to wait five more years for a new instalment from this side of Barrett’s musical ego, and, more to the point, that we don’t need to repeat a pandemic to get it, either.