Review Summary: When you are light, you are time, you are endless.
The concept of endless light is a tricky one; more so than it initially appears. It’s a phrase immediately seen as wholly good, a genuine archetype to fight off the dark-- an abstraction often bad, or even worse, evil (depending on your desire for theatrics). You see it across all spectrums; Heaven is brilliantly luminescent, while Hell is dark, only lit by the fires. Another clear example lay in comic-books and the sort: the heroes often wear lighter, more vivid colors (except for that one billionaire orphan), while the villains always dress in more foreboding shades. It's an idea instilled ever since you were young. Light equals goodness. But why is the dark there, if not to balance the light? Similarly, why is an album with the title Endless Light
so unrelentingly bleak?
Perhaps a better question would be how is this album so goddamned good?
O’Brother is an interesting band, and not “interesting” like when your mother attempts to compliment your abstract art as a child (“oh dear, that’s… interesting”), but interesting as in they’re nearly undefinable. On Endless Light
, the band creates soundscapes that are dystopian in essence, blending the best elements of post-rock with the darker side of Thrice and a bit of that old Deftones grunge-- oh, and the lead singer has a tendency to sound like Jeff Buckley. But, truthfully, it’s unfair to compare O’Brother to these predecessors, not because the band doesn’t deserve the comparisons; no, they easily deserve it. But because they stand on their own, and assuredly so. They’re undefinable in the sense that, despite comparisons, they have crafted their own sound, fit only for them and them alone. This is a unique album, doing what it wants, whenever it wants, and doing it damn well.
From the opening methodical drums of “Slow Sin” to the enveloping atmosphere of closer “Realm of the Physical”, this album encapsulates the listener in a strange place, an almost space-like aura lingering and hovering over all. It feels eldritch in ways, with the constantly reoccurring motifs of the end of time and the world itself quite prevalent on the album throughout. There’s this ongoing sense of dread, and it makes Tanner Merritt’s singing and lyrics all the more believable and horrifying; such as on “Deconstruct”, where Merritt does, in fact, tell of the endtimes (“I saw the endless light, I saw all that was never-ending”). This is a song that feels sprawling (even if it’s not even four minutes), as it carries a confident, heavy bass-line, making every moment that much more dire and important; all the while depicting imagery of apocalyptic destruction, undetermined if nuclear or holy (the proposed endless light, perhaps?).
And one of the most dynamic moments on Endless Light
actually comes right after “Deconstruct”. On “Complicated End Times” (a possible SOTY candidate), O’Brother pieces together one of the most dysphoric and consistently-surprising songs of 2016. It opens on a straight-up groovy guitar-line that’s absolutely slathered in grunge, with Merritt bringing it all to a heed with a cool falsetto, calling upon sparse and beautiful chords, only for the band to let it all go with absolute force in the chorus. The song is ever-changing, and could be considered unfocused and incohesive if it wasn’t pulled off with such finesse. It’s seriously brilliant, and rather infectious to boot.
But there is really no understating how incredible Tanner Merritt’s voice is, however. Throughout Endless Light
, time and time again he proves how versatile and capable he is. His vocal range and delivery are truly reminiscent of Jeff Buckley and Dustin Kensrue at times, especially with songs like “Bloodlines” and the album's eponymous track. On “Bloodlines”, Merritt croons a shaky, yet graceful falsetto, before breaking out into a fit of manic screaming, and then finally delivering one of the most powerful choruses on the album. And, on the eponymous track, Merritt shifts to a crisp, delicate tenor, as the rest of the band seemingly backs off, only providing the necessary atmosphere and instrumentation to carry the song along. That’s no knock against the band either; it’s reputable, in fact. It takes a certain degree of skill and confidence to know when to back off and when to give it your all, and it’s clear they have both of those in spades.
As mentioned before, O’Brother is a truly interesting band. On the seven-minute closing track, “Realm of the Physical”, instead of opting for a groundbreaking be-all/end-all of a song, it opens with a sinister acoustic twang and an off-putting percussive beat. The first few minutes or so are repetitive in nature, but in the best way possible. Merritt sings like a man facing death, preparing for a true end (“There is a time and a place for a miracle/I hope this it”). The song begins to pick up, and the guitars distort and the drums pound before all simply fading away. And then that’s it. For four minutes after, there's just the soft, creeping lull of a guitar, falling faint only to sink back in. It’s haunting. It’s almost unnatural. And O’Brother is one of the few bands, if not the only band, that could pull this off. It’s masterful.
is an album that only gets better upon repeated listens. It’s an album filled with intricacies masked in searing brutality-- and in its brief fifty-one minutes, O’Brother does what most bands struggle for years to do. They carve out an identity only befitting of them, and them alone. Endless Light
truly is an all-out assault, yet it is one of the most unflinchingly beautiful pieces of 2016, and a strong album of the year contender.