Review Summary: There are few things I would describe as flawless-this is one of them.
There are few albums that can get me to just shut up and listen. I primarily listen to metal so i'm usually screaming/growling along with the songs or "moshing". But there are several select collections of music that just amaze me beyond words, and I need to take in every glorious note. There are very few albums that give me this feeling: the ones that come to mind are often regarded as classics. Animals, Superunknown, Sound Awake, Kid A, all incredibly atmospheric, driving pieces of music that compel & force your attention. And in the past weeks, I have added a new brilliant composition to this list: dredg's El Cielo. I was first introduced to dredg by 2009's The Pariah, The Parrot, The Delusion. It was certainly enjoyable, but not a perfect album by any means. My first impression of dredg was that they were incredibly talented and imaginative group of musicians with one key ingredient: potential. And they were wasting this potential with enjoyable yet forgettable albums like Pariah. However this attitude immediately changed back in February on my birthday, when I received their debut album Leitmotif as a gift. While it also had its flaws (the final third of the album is just plain boring) I felt like this was a much better record than Pariah and that there were moments of the album that actually stuck in my mind, rather than just a forgettable rock album. I often felt like dredg was leading their audience along: making near-great records that just barely failed to reach the status of what could be a classic. This whole opinion was turned upside down the first time I entered the atmospheric landscape of El Cielo.
El Cielo is a concept album about the horrific symptoms of sleep paralysis, a truly terrifying condition where the victim is literally paralyzed before or after sleeping. During this time the victim regularly hallucinates and hears things that aren't there. Other parts of the album are based upon a surrealist painting by Salvador Dali entitled "Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening". The whole album flows based on these concepts: the "Brushstroke" interludes often include the sounds of a man painting and dipping his brush in ink, and the ambiance that binds all 16 tracks together often contain the steady breathing of a sleeping man who could possibly be suffering from the horrifying symptoms of sleep paralysis. The concept is most realized on tracks like "Scissor Lock" and "Convalescent" where haunting, extremely descriptive lyrics and eerie background noises actually make you feel like the person suffering through the ordeal. El Cielo doesn't just invite you into its atmosphere: it engulfs you in it with no chance of escape until the 57 minutes are up. From the moment of the opening of "Brushstroke: dcbtfoabaaposba" where the delicate brushstrokes are soon overtaken by cacophonous ambiance that could be associated with a mental ward, you know you're in for a dark and atmospheric but ultimately rewarding ride. This ambient nightmare very quickly unravels into a rollicking bass line and minimalistic drum beat as "Same Ol' Road" enters. The thing you will first realize about the rhythm section is that they rely entirely on exactly what they're supposed to: moving the song forward. Nothing too complex or out of the ordinary, but they play their parts like they mean it so they sound a lot better than they should. The guitar on this album serves as a dreamy disturbing soundscape creator, adding deep melodic lines to compliment vocalist Gavin Hayes' gorgeous voice. "Same Ol' Road" encompasses all these elements of songwriting, especially during the anthemic chorus ("though we bleed/we must push on, we must push on").
Much of the album flows like this: 2 or 3 brilliant compositions followed by an instrumental interlude, which can range from jazz breaks ("New Heart Shadow") to piano and strings ("A Walk In The Park"), a recreation of Same Ol' Road ("Reprise") or even classical Indian music ("An Elephant in the Delta Waves"). The interludes are incredibly diverse and the album wouldn't be the same without them: they truly bind and flow the album and the transitions are seamless. Gavin Hayes and drummer Dino Campanella will be the two main members impressing you throughout the album, with Hayes delivering some of the best vocals of his career on tracks like "Sanzen", "Triangle" and "Whoa Is Me", while Dino (who is also the band's pianist) plays some amazing hard-hitting drumbeats on "Sorry But It's Over" and "Of The Room". The guitar and bass gently fly over the drums and vocals and add a whole new dimension to the music. "Triangle" is a great example of this: starting out with a beautiful introduction containing a string section and Dino's drums, the song soon evolves into a slow jam session while the final minute of the song will overtake the speakers with an anthemic final verse with the best guitar and bass parts on the album. "Convalescent" is an incredibly minimalistic tune with the instrumentalists only playing sparse, sharp quarter notes over Hayes' vocals until the chorus where the bass goes nuts and the guitar plays an epic melodic line. A song that will probably not hit you until after a few listens is "Eighteen People Live In Harmony" which starts out with Hayes singing over a glockenspiel before about halfway through he delivers my favorite vocal part of the album (A stale kind of people we'll find, Walking in single file line, I think it's time we finally rewind, Let's go ahead, we might as well). The vocals are double-tracked to add harmony (hence the title of the song) and it works flawlessly. Another incredible example of dredg's diversity between their songs comes with "Whoa Is Me" a jazz-inflected tune that features a wailing trumpet, a guitar fed through a Leslie speaker and a frenetic ghost-note led drum track, not to mention the best chorus on the album. The song ends with a spoken-word sample which I have managed to memorize over the past few days with my repeated listens. Without looking up the lyrics I will type the sample here: "That piece was recorded live at the famous 1 second club in 1944. It was inspired by the clarity of consciousness, rather than the vividness of dream, and was the self-proclaimed pinnacle of broken bridges and chest pressure". Somebody verify if i got that right please. But I haven't gotten to the 2 best tracks on the album yet: "Sanzen" and the legendary "The Canyon Behind Her".
"Sanzen" immediately flows from Same Ol' Road's ambient ending with a drumroll leading into the amazing verse which still blows my mind every time I hear it. Everything about this verse is flawless: the sixteenth-note led drum beat provides a solid back bone, while the syncopated guitar hook still takes my breath away, and I haven't even mentioned the vocals which are top-notch throughout the whole thing (while 18 people live in harmony has my favorite vocal excerpt, this is by far his best whole performance on the record). About 2 minutes in the song turns with a heavy effect on the guitar and vocals with a triangle leading the drum-beat. After a huge wave of ambiance we are back to where we started, a super-light delicate tune that never ceases to amaze. "The Canyon Behind Her" will always be dredg's best song no matter what they have up their sleeve next (although I haven't listened to what appears to be their downfall, Chuckles & Mr Squeezy so I don't know if they'll have any luck in the future with making good songs). Beginning with a floating piano melody and a woman speaking a foreign language, the song soon erupts into the chorus that will stick in the mind of anyone who loves music ("does anybody feel this way/does anybody feel like I do?") It may seem like a cliché lyric but the way it is delivered gives it a hell of a lotta substance. Hayes' vocals are flawless and the lush guitar soundscape repeats the same hook for over 90 seconds but it is still fresh and amazing every time it is played. Dino and Drew Roulette (the bassist) are fantastic on this track, with Drew producing and incredible tight bass line while Dino relies more on the feel of the song but still has more technically impressive moments on the track. About halfway in the song turns a lot like "Sanzen" does, but in a whole different direction. An incredibly heavy guitar and bass riff overtakes the mix as records scratch in the background and Dino goes absolutely crazy, but this only lasts for about 30 seconds before we are re-introduced to the beautiful landscape we were in before. The song's final minute is truly remarkable. The instrumentation at this part is breathtaking as a men's choir slowly fades in and the band fades out. It takes a long time before you realize El Cielo has ended, and what do you do? Play it again. I did the first time I heard it: I'm pretty sure you'll do the same.
El Cielo made me associate feeling with music again, something I hadn't done for quite a while. These four men sure know how to make a hell of an album, and I sure hope they can make something as amazing as this again because this is the only album I've rated above a 4 by dredg. I know they have the potential to do it: only time will tell.
Eighteen People Live In Harmony
Whoa Is Me
The Canyon Behind Her