Review Summary: An artefact of early emo that makes masterful use of the dynamic between soft and extreme
Does a picture really tell a thousand words?
It seems foolish to think that the image an artist might choose to use to portray their art could have any influence on the songs captured therein. And yet when engaging in the now archaic art of record browsing, thumbing through the records or CDs present at any random music store, what causes the buyer to pause and look at a given album is the art the musicians chose to represent them. The art serves as a physical embodiment of the ideas held within the vinyl or compact disc within.
The cover of Still Life's debut effort, From Angry Heads With Skyward Eyes, shows an aged man, his beard carrying the faded hues of the years he has known. His head is capped with strands that are lifted in the wind, and within his palms he carries an object whose dimensions are kept obscure from the viewer. Gazing upon this imparts a melancholy and distant air upon the observer.
The album's first track, Empty Cage, opens with a simple, pure, undistorted arpeggiated guitar chord, and the sound of distant voices speaking. But with the kick of the drum, the guitar is amplified, repeating itself before settling into its groove. The vocals begin in a slow whisper before their brisk amplification - a contrast between the harsh and the soft quickly accentuated by the guitar. The guitarist begins to build the song around a series of softly arpeggiated chords, only to be aggressively disrupted by power chords.
This is a distinction that will be a hallmark of the album, the abrupt shift between the extreme, amplified tones and the soft, muted acoustic ones. This never recedes. The vocals emerge, ever muted - they accompany the instrumentation yet remain buried within the muddy guitar riffs, evincing their purpose as an instrument to deliver raw sound and not necessarily to tell a story. The vocalist serves only to carry melodies atop the surging bass and guitar, accentuated by his shrieks to accompany the band's shift into more frantic tones. The constant theme is one of longing that will never be resolved - every guitar chord rings open, and every bass note resounds in an unforgiving echo. No matter the extent to which the guitar reaches into atonal tremolo picking, departing from the arpeggiated riffs of its emo roots, the bass remains as a constant foundation; and the production recognizes this, keeping the bass at a highlight where other bands might deign to bury it.
Look once more into the album's artwork, and read its black and white tones. Think about the melancholy visage of its subject. Breathe deep the morbid fruits sown therein and let yourself sink into the intricacies of every shift in hue as your ears find their ways across the complexities of this album. You will be better for it.