Review Summary: "I was born with my eyes open!"
There’s a scene in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away in which the protagonist, Francis Tarwater, burns down his dead great-uncle’s homestead. Tarwater has just drowned his mentally handicapped cousin Bishop, and returns to his uncle’s land in a final effort to defy his destiny of prophethood. After lighting fires in the woods and kneeling at his uncle’s grave, Tarwater has a hallucination of Christ feeding the multitude the Bread of Life, a food he craves and badly wants to refuse. Sinews, 52 years too late, is the soundtrack to his hallucination.
Sinews, like Tarwater’s vision, simultaneously arrests and repels. Unpleasant but exceedingly gripping in theme and sound, the album shows White Suns almost entirely ignoring harmonic and rhythmic concerns and using dynamics and tension to maximum effect. Lyrics are yelped, distortion is the sonic norm, and the listener’s expectations are rebuffed and then outright refused. There’s a moment in “Fire Sermon” that gets me every time: after four minutes of feedback, strange guitar twangs, and seemingly endless drum rolls which tease a climax that just won’t ***ing arrive, the band finally breaks through, screaming into sync with a real chord progression (!) and a bass/tom heavy drum line. It’s a particular type of meticulously crafted mania so effective that each time it arrives, I realize that I’ve been holding my breath and gratefully exhale.
That exhalation of relief that always hits me during “Fire Sermon” seems a nice little stand-in for the record as a whole. Sinews seems to demand a physical response from its listener: winces as the record moves on a dime from “just loud” to “ear-splitting”, jerks as songs go from stasis to breakneck in an instant. The record is concerned with descending, pulling you into the pit of self, drawing you down to “the dark pool” one screech at a time, as singer Kevin Barry says in “Cenote”, “by...radiance”.
The constant lyrical and musical references to fire, to “radiance”, in Sinews point toward total scouring in the name of clarity. It’s an attempt to see the true self, associated with water, which can’t be burned away, unadorned by intentions or lies. Midway through the album, during “Flesh Vault”, one of the few clean vocal performances on the record, Barry intones, “Curled around my center...my scent becomes fetid. The walls adorned with my detritus become menacing.” It’s ugly and certainly melodramatic, but after the constant burning of the previous 25 minutes, Barry’s ugliness rings true and feels eminently relatable. It’s trying to get you to Tarwater’s realization: you are what you hate, and you probably can’t escape.
Sinews is just short enough for its non-linear brand of songcraft to be instructive and not trying. Ideas appear, abruptly disappear, and re-occur later in the record in a way that implies a wish to cohere rather than smacking of a lack of ideas. The feedback, the deliberate lack of melody, the non-linear structure: it’s all ugly, but in the context of the album, the band is ugly and you are ugly and so am I. I don’t necessarily hold to that view, but after listening to Sinews I think I could be persuaded.