Review Summary: A defining work.
If Moving Mountain's beautiful, post-rock landmark Pneuma was the sound of spring seguing into summer, an uplifting cacophony of joyous rebirth and warmth, then Barrow's Though I'm Alone is its bitter, bleak other half. There is no celebration here, no warm post-rock shimmer, no joyous trumpets praising the rise of the sun. This is the withdrawal of autumn, the wasteland of winter, a field of cracked, frost-bitten soil. In terms of genres, it's post-hardcore in name alone. You only need glance at the song titles to get a preview of the alien terrain traversed here – 'Fox Ears And Silence', 'Wither', 'Old Timer', 'Fed (Choking, Retching)', 'Clawhold', 'Dogwood'. Reminiscent of the stoic unsentimentality that pervades Ted Hughes' poetry, they are earthy and evocative, yet curiously peregrine.
This is a dark, dense, expansive record; heavier, yet fuller and more cohesive than their superb 2011 début Being Without. It's also an emotional record, in the best sense of the word. Neither sentimental nor self-pitying, instead it approaches sorrow, rage, regret and hope intelligently, filtering raw experience through Travis Schuster's erudite lyricism and flawless delivery. His lyrics are often opaque, always poetic, and he deftly blends autobiography with literary influences and character study. Penultimate track 'You Can Probably Find It In Norfolk' is a homage to the wretched horror of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go. Those familiar with the book, or film adaptation, will appreciate the desperate emptiness evoked here - 'We are birthed with perfect posture, arms held high and heads hung low. We are raised to give all that we have and then we die.'
Opener 'Fox Ears And Silence' is a cluttered, claustrophobic affair – a far cry from the soaring majesty of 'Where I Was' that opened Being Without. 'Wither' employs space and melody to great effect and it's climax is spectacular as Schuster repeatedly howls 'there is nothing left' over a wall of warbling guitar. 'Clawhold' is the album's bruised, barely-beating heart. Featuring just an acoustic guitar and Schuster's pained, plaintive vocals the emotion present is palpable, his voice racked with longing as he gently sings 'I try to stay happy, but the future fights back'. Simple, melancholy and utterly effecting it's both a highlight and brief, but welcome reprieve from the thick-clot, oppressive atmosphere that pervades most of Though I'm Alone. Finale 'God's In His Heaven – All Is Well' closes the record in a fittingly epic fashion; seven swelling minutes of epic melodic hardcore.
There isn't a bad song here, nor a moment wasted, but this isn't an immediate record. It needs attentive, repeat listens for it's form to unravel, for its many small details and nuances to be fully appreciated. Being Without was a great collection of songs; Though I'm Alone is a great album. It's a coherent whole, a composite piece of work with a strong aesthetic, identity and sound. Jump in halfway through and you risk drowning in its murky depths, but allow it flow over you from start to finish and you'll be rewarded with the most engrossing, authentic album released so far this year.