Thursday, November 5, 2009

#49. maudlin of the Well - Bath and Leaving Your Body Map (Dark Symphonies, 2001)

You know what's another thing I'll add to my ever expanding list of useless genre terms? Progressive rock. Seriously, if you want to talk about misapplication of terms - and oh boy do I love to discuss me some misapplications of terms - there's few better places to start than progressive rock, or metal or any other genre that gets a progressive qualifier. Progressive should refer to actual progress being made, forging new ideas out of old concepts or forging new concepts out of old ideas. Expanding the vocabulary of a genre would be progressive. Taking musical omnivorousness into the creation of a rock album in every possible way would be progressive to some degree. Dressing up a basic song with some poncey keyboards and a 15 minute guitar solo is not progressive. Concept albums are not progressive. Pink Floyd were never progressive. Dream Theater were never progressive either, though they were talented. Everything that your local rock station refers to as being progressive rock is most likely not progressive because they don't change the playing field so much as play on it with more airs and pretentions. I'm being horribly reductive and generalizing to an embarrassing degree, but this is the sort of thing that comes to mind when I'm listening to maudlin of the Well or another Toby Driver project. You want progressive? This is fucking progressive.

Of course neither Bath nor its companion release Leaving Your Body Map manage to reach the heights of creativity that Driver's next project did, but taken together they represent two hours of the most forward thinking metal-adjacent music made in the last 15 years give or take. It's more than just Driver's wide range of influences being on display throughout both albums - which as far as I'm concerned were meant to be taken as two consecutive parts so I'll be discussing them as such - that make it seem forward-thinking, but the level of expertise brought to even the most minute of details at any given point. It goes without saying that an album with as much genre-shifting and synthesizing as there is on display here would fall apart if it didn't have a strong hand behind it on the production and arrangement side, and Driver ensures that the album sounds absolutely immaculate at every turn - and given that those turns go from epic post-rock jazz to death metal a la Autopsy within a few minutes of each other that's a pretty amazing feat. Seriously, I'm not as big on musical schizophrenia as I once was, but the shifts that motW go through here are expertly done even if they're not exactly logical in terms of flow.

Now, I know I've harped on albums that sound like little more than collections of songs thrown together in random order with no regard for how things sound together before, but even though there are points on both Bath and Leaving Your Body Map that fit with that description I still find it hard to see them as anything other than fully realized albums. The genre-jumping is a draw, and with that comes a bit less in the flow department than I generally like so I'm not gonna spend too much time harping on it, especially when the songs are as great as they are here. I mean, I think 90% of metal bands would kill for a song as bad ass as "The Ferryman" or "They Aren't All Beautiful" while 90% of post-rock bands would kill for something as effortlessly grand and fluid as "The Blue Ghost/Shedding Qliphoth" or "Stones of October Sobbing" and 90% of any bands in any genre would kill for anything as perfectly realized as "Girl With a Watering Can" or "Sleep Is a Curse." These are just plain great songs, all across the 2 albums the only real dud is "Marid's Gift of Art" which highlights the one negative aspect of the band's sound: the fact that for all his greatness in the arranging department Toby Driver really can not sing. The other vocalists used on the two albums are top notch, especially Maria-Stella Fountoulakis' otherworldly croon and Jason Byron's actually comprehensible death growl, but Driver himself never shines in that department for whatever reason...lack of affect maybe? He doesn't pop up too often outside of a supporting context in that area though, and when there are as many purely instrumental delights as are offered here it's hard to knock that part too much.

And seriously, the instrumental sections and arrangements here are among the best in any genre. Just listen to the middle section of "Girl With a Watering Can" where the dual guitar solos seem to bounce off each other with perfect balance or return of that ominous organ riff towards the end of "The Ferryman" - Driver and his companions know their way around the ins and outs of making these lengthy numbers seem like they've earned their length as opposed to just wasting time with senseless noodling. Even the interludes are essential and to some extent as good as the actual songs, especially the jazzy second interlude on Bath where the percussion is made by splashing water or the absolutely beautiful fourth interlude from Leaving Your Body Map. The whole package is just highlight after highlight on an instrumental scale, from the stunningly beautiful "The Blue Ghost/Shedding Qliphoth" through the doomy "Monstrously Low Tide" there's barely a wasted moment across both discs. And the band is just on fire throughout the pair of them, never once indulging in unnecessary displays of virtuosity but content to work within the immaculately arranged frameworks Driver has laid out and using that limitation to coax out some alternatingly beautiful and crushing moments. Doing all that while traipsing across countless types of music and rarely sounding like any other band out there? That's fucking progressive.

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