At the beginning of the decade, Matt Elliott was winding down his Third Eye Foundation project with an album of what could best be described as ethereal drum 'n' bass. At the close of the decade he was making the best John Cale album since the 70s. That's a pretty large leap in terms of style, though to be fair a lot of the stuff on the 3EF swan song, Little Lost Soul, has a bit of a folk bent to it, but hearing the evolution that Elliott was undergoing on a step by step basis made it all seem downright logical. Hell, stretch back to the inception of Third Eye Foundation and you can hear his work slowly being overtaken by surprisingly disparate elements, the feedback-laced mood pieces of Semtex giving way to the darkness of Ghost then the more acoustic-based explorations of his solo debut, it's deconstruction on the just-missing-out-on-this-list Drinking Songs to the dark, quasi-Andalusian folk of his outright masterpiece Howling Songs. It seems like a large berth to cover in 15 years, but hearing it happen in sequence was pretty thrilling and utterly fascinating.
Little Lost Soul was always my preferred cup of Third Eye Foundation as it seemingly combined all the best elements of Ghost - the enveloping darkness mixed with frantic D 'n' B drum patterns - and You Guys Kill Me- the increased hookiness and varied instrumentation. In that light it makes sense that Elliottt would retire the moniker after it's release, not counting the (horribly titled) remix collection I Poo Poo on Your Juju and his entry in the Omupo DJ mix series, because it really does feel like the culmination of all he did in the 6 years that Third Eye Foundation was active. Thus it winds up working on two levels for me, both as a compendium of what 3EF was about and as a great album i its own right. The signposts to his past releases are all over the place here, yet despite their similarities to what he's done in the past each of the first four songs feels like a new take on those ideas. "I've Lost That Loving Feline" could find a place on Ghost without much effort, but it also feels like the evolution of that side of Elliott's arsenal, with the ethereal choral vocals warping around the D 'n' B drum sequencing in a way that's less oppressive darkness and more elegant release. Likewise, the next three tracks could pass for You Guys Kill Me out-takes but never feel like a retread. OK, maybe "Half a Tiger" could be called "In Bristol With a Universal Cooler" without much hesitation, but Elliott's sound was evolving beyond the Third Eye Foundation trademarks, and the songs stand in a marked contrast to the prior works because of that.
After the opening quartet things start to evolve anew with "Lost" where Elliott takes a simple acoustic riff through a hall of spooky sound effects and crisp drums. It still sounds like it could have found a home on You Guys Kill Me but at the same time it feels like the first step towards the more organic material that Elliott would release under his own name through the rest of the decade. And it's an absolutely stunning piece of music besides, feeling like a precursor to The Books if they applied their laptop trickery to American Primitivism instead of indie electronica. As it shifts and mutates over its 11 minute run time, "Lost" starts to sound like a dry run for the sort of deconstruction that Elliott would perfect on "The Maid We Messed" five years later, but as it is it's a quietly stunning song, full of interesting touches that accumulate as it reaches its climax to give it a sort of power that few other 3EF numbers can match. The rest of the album can't help but feel like an afterthought after that, I do have a soft spot for the trip-hoppy "Goddamnit You've Got to Be Kind"'s use of beatboxing but it definitely pales next to the all encompassing splendor of "Lost"
Howling Songs seems to be in danger of doing that sort of thing right off the bat as it's lead off track, "The Kübler-Ross Model," is just as brilliant as "Lost" was albeit in a completely different way. In a way, it plays like a summation of the way the whole of the album plays out, rains of quickly plucked acoustic guitar arpeggios giving way to Elliott's emotively fragile vocals and then building to an earth-shattering climax of overdubbed guitars, mournful strings, piano and light drumming then crashing back down to an understated denouement. The same pattern repeats with each track, but each time it works just as well. The songs may all havet he same backbone, but they're far from copies of each other, each of the lengthier tracks making the patterns work in a different way, whether it's the increasingly frantic strumming and painful string stabs of "A Broken Flamenco" or the mournful vocal catharsis of "The Howling Song" it never feels like the album's one-note despite each track having the same basic pattern at its core. And shit, even if it was one-note when that note is as beautifully played as it is on Howling Songs that type of thing becomes a compliment in my book.
To put it simply, Howling Songs sounds like no other record I've heard. The signposts are all there, a lot of them posting to various facets of John Cale's career, but the result is so utterly confounding in its uniqueness that no matter how many times I've heard the album it always floors me to some extent. The application of the dynamic tension and release of post rock to what could pass for Spanish folk music at some points, the emotionally resonant vocals, the breathtaking climaxes and the deep, resonant production - the way this album fills the room can't be denied now that I've got a nicer pair of speakers - all comes together to make a thoroughly singular piece of music. Each song is it's own little variation of the same pattern, but the ways that they all build so differnetly is never not a sight to behold, especially the delayed release of "I Name This Shop Tragedy, Bless Her and All Who Sail With Her," and even if things start to sound samey to you it's hard to deny that they don't sound absolutely fantastic at the same time. It's the sort of album that I can get lost in, spending the whole 47 minutes it plays endlessly fascinated by the surroundings it constructs in my head. By the time the last lines of the album are said and "Bomb the Stock Exchange" roars to its appropriately cinematic ending I'm powerless to do anything but ride it out and love every spare second of it. It may be a long way from Elliott's initial forays this decade but it ends his journey thus far damn near perfectly.