Review Summary: The soundtrack to waiting to break down...
Despite its penchant for the epic climax, post-rock can often be a mundane, uninspiring genre. It lends itself to jaw-droppingly powerful arrangements (Our Ceasing Voice) just as much as lazy instrumental rock that showcases little more than a basic understanding of structure and music theory (Arbor Lights). However, its most satisfying offerings are often those that make you forget the label ‘post-rock’ and move you by virtue of simply being wonderful music, and it is no coincidence that these albums are often the definitive ones. This is Blueneck’s realm and they excel within it.
The music here is essentially composed of a very fragile atmosphere that inspires loneliness and regret; it’s never melodramatic or overdone, but it is extremely pervasive and touching. It’s also somewhat cinematic and consequentially lends itself strongly to imaginative visualisations; one of the most resonant images it brings to my mind is that of a man sitting by the window in a train carriage. There are few people sitting near him and the flat countryside outside is hard to see clearly through the combination of mist and heavy rain. He doesn’t notice either of these things but he does feel the cold, especially on his face, which is pressed against the window, and he hears the rain striking the carriage roof relentlessly, meaninglessly. Something weighs heavily on his mind – maybe the train is taking him away from a recent break-up, or he might be going to see his family after suffering a recent bereavement – but the specifics aren’t important. In the carriage, he can let himself slump against the window and ignore the blurred landscape outside; he is being taken on a journey and doesn’t have to focus on anything else. The journey itself alternates slowly between spaces of hollow complacency and the sadness that comes with realising that his slumped reprieve will end as soon as the train stops. Our protagonist is cold and unhappy, but he’s doing his best to numb himself to whatever he’s going to have to face when he steps onto the platform. It’s a sorrowful, gloomy journey, but he clings onto it and wishes that it would go on just long enough to stop him from arriving. This is the kind of experience King Nine
offers, and if I ever find myself in a similar position to the man on the train, I know what I’ll be listening to.
Perhaps the key to the album’s success is that every song is given exactly the right amount of space for ideas to be reinforced and developed; for example, the title track trudges its way through four and a half minutes of minimalistic soundscapes, monosyllabic vocals and slow drum rolls in a manner that is totally at ease with itself. On paper, it might come across as dreary or monotonous, but Blueneck raise the tension with astounding subtlety and make a very sparse, sombre composition resound with intrigue and emotion. They prove time and time again that they have mastered the art of doing great things with very little.
This is particularly remarkable when one considers that the album flows very much as a whole and could easily be considered as 54 minutes of continuous music – that’s nearly an hour of melancholy rising and falling that sticks very carefully to a specific approach. Potential for dullness, to say the least. However, not only is King Nine
powerful at any given point in its running time, but all of its songs distinguish themselves. That is to say, although the album is so cohesive that it comes across as a single entity, all the individual compositions are strong enough in their own right to avoid blurring together, and by the end, the listener is very much aware that they have heard a solid work of art made up of nine excellent tracks. Particular standouts include Broken Fingers
, which is almost wounded in its crawling pace and devastatingly beautiful, and Mutatis
, which raises the volume somewhat and adds a percussive, substantial kick to the album.
I often found myself reminded of Oceansize’s more tranquil moments (Women Who Love Men Who Love Drugs, Music For a Nurse, Savant, Dead Dogs and All Sorts), not least because Blueneck’s vocalist has a similar style to Mike Vennart’s, albeit with a little more purity and tunefulness. Considering how I could write reams and reams of praise about Oceansize, this comparison says a lot for Blueneck’s emotional depth.
There are a couple of contextual points that I think are worth flagging up with reference to King Nine
, as they provide a rewarding sense of metacoherence. Firstly, Blueneck are based in West England (Bristol) and have an approach to making music that has become increasingly reclusive over their career. Now, the West Country can be a lovely area, but it is also notoriously rainy and often bleak; it might be famous within the music community for the 90s trip-hop scene, but it is also the land of Stonehenge and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem
, which portrays a subtle sense of isolation. I find that the atmosphere of the album identifies strongly with the West Country, and will be sure to listen to it next time I go there.
The second point is Blueneck’s preceding album – their 2012 release Epilogue
was instrumental and heavily ambient and relied on beautifully simple piano melodies played at hypnotically slow tempos. It has much in common with King Nine
atmospherically, and although the band might say otherwise, I like to think of it as a skeletal version of this album. Hearing the return of vocals and more substantial instrumentation alongside a similarly maudlin atmosphere is a nice progression that makes King Nine
all the more satisfying.
In any case, with King Nine
Blueneck have produced a distinctively touching post-rock release that is a milestone in an era of a genre that seems to have its best days behind it. I doubt it will gain the recognition it deserves – the band’s deliberately low profile certainly doesn’t help – but anyone who has heard it can attest to its power. Recommended to anyone.