Review Summary: A stunning post-rock record that doesn't need blustering distortion to prove its point.
I don't mean to pull the whole 'woe is me' line, because I know it's insufferable whenever music journalists do that, but for the past three years it's been horrible to write reviews of post-rock albums. The problem is that the critical reaction to the whole scene started to turn inwards upon itself, making every effort to savage innocent bystanders in reviews; and yet the music wasn't getting any worse. Everybody called the decline of post-rock and started to write about it, but it just never happened. How else can you explain the number of reviews for acts like Spokes, Long Distance Calling, And So I Watch You From Afar, Pg.Lost, Maybeshewill, Lights Out Asia, This Will Destroy You, World's End Girlfriend, and The Pax Cecilia (and dozens more) that just spend four paragraphs saying 'post-rock sucks now, except these guys'. Oh really? Some journalists have been guilty of writing that same review three or four times in a year.
But then, it's boring simply telling the truth - that these bands are only doing what others have done before, but doing it well. And that's why writing reviews for those guys is so joyless - you can either be boring, or be a massive cliche. Praise be for Her Name is Calla, then - a band that's obviously post-rock, and yet doesn't really sound like anybody else once it comes down to it. An eminently loveable post-rock album that you can recommend to people without just describing it as Rachel's meets Mogwai meets Godspeed, or some other concoction - I was beginning to think they were a thing of the past.
The most appealing thing about The Quiet Lamb
, on first listen, is its dynamics - but it's not what you'd expect. The most fair criticism that's stung post-rock is the same one that's begun rearing its head around dubstep - that the whole thing relies entirely on swapping from quiet bits to loud bits (or 'drops' if we're extending the dubstep terminology) and that all the loud bits sound pretty much the same for each band. There is a gram of truth to that, so it's great that the first loud bit on this album doesn't appear until we're already almost 6 and a half minutes into track five, the monolithic "Condor and River". The next one isn't until the three-track series that closes the album. Her Name is Calla clearly know what they're good at and hey stick to it - the variation, tenson, invention, and stylistic diversity in the quieter moments is dazzling. Except, of course, these are't 'quiter moments' - that's just what they'd be called on another post-rock album. Here, they almost form the entire album. Her Name is Calla have effectively disposed of post-rock's most reliable set piece and still come up smelling of roses.
What's more, their instrumental passages display a real understanding of art music. Whether that's something they've simply picked up through osmosis after listening to other bands and composers, or whether it's something they've consciously worked on is open for discusssion, but whatever the reason, it's important to recognize that it's there. So on opening track "Moss Giant", you can hear the ghost of Claude Debussy haunting the repeating piano line. One later track also has a piano passage reminiscent of Chopin. It forms an interesting contrast with the string passages, which are clearly composed with a popular musician's mind and could never really be co-opted into a classical work without some major adaptions. It's with these string melodies that they sound closest to any of their contemporaries (Yndi Halda in particular - see "Pour More Oil"), but they have enough going on within the bigger picture to not be soundalikes. There are sprinklings of primitivism and drone throughout too, although neither is ever lingered upon, and before we get to this album's relations to other pop genres; Thom Corah's vocals are frequently reminiscent of slowcore, but with a willingness to stretch to the outer limits of his range not often found in that genre, and their willingness to embrace folk on "Long Grass" and "Homecoming" points to a possible future outside of post-rock that not many bands can confidently say they have.
With all that going on, it's almost a little disappointing that the two best songs on that album are the ones that really get loud. "Condor and River" is still outstanding three years after it was originally released, its constantly escalating tension, teasing the listener right up till the big explosion, perfectly judged. The three-track run that makes up "The Union" escalates things to another level, though - that second part sounds like Neurosis in full flight. As a closer it's hardly in the spirit of the album, but it works anyway - the first 9 tracks have got a lot of tension and not much release, and this spectacular ejaculation of noise is one hell of a release. Part three evens finds room for tribal drums and massed, grunting backing vocals; people often like to talk about post-rock as if it's a film score, so to indulge this metaphor, this would be the soundtrack to a massed barbarian battle scene. (I hesitate to mention 300
in case it comes across as a backhanded compliment, but, well.....)
The sweep of that image isn't in keeping with most of The Quiet Lamb
, so the effect is almost one of the band doing it just to prove they can. That's okay though, because between this album and their EPs, it doesn't sem like there's a lot they can't pull off. Just about everything on this album works exactly as it's supposed to, and whether that's through hard graft or through natural ability, it's a rare thing to hear. I'd love to proclaim this as the best post-rock album I've heard this year, but it seems a little flippant - I can't think of many better albums in any genre.