Review Summary: Lupe likes his pictures in word form, Meniscus likes their stories in instrumental form.
Good old Meniscus. Back in mid-2014 I reviewed their debut LP War of Currents and found it to be a stunningly good slice of post-rock, made all the more so by the fact that it was a three-piece's first LP. It may be a little misleading to describe WoC as a "debut" because the band had been around for nine years by the time it was released, but the fact remains. Meniscus does not release albums all that often, and when they do, it's a special event.
If an album is described with words and phrases like "post-rock," "instrumental," and "the shortest song is over five minutes long," certain images spring to mind. Instrumental music can be a bit tricky because it requires the musicians to take over the duties of the vocalist in terms of making the song move dynamically. Often times it's very easy to hear where vocals were supposed to be, as the instrumentation is still structured like a normal rock/metal song. Riffs still function as riffs, quick little pieces that repeat for a while before changing into another thing and then back again. A lot will even have clear choruses.
When one sees those long song runtimes, it's easy to roll your eyes and prepare to buckle in for a 3-minute track that's been stretched out to 10 for no reason beyond wanting to make a big epic post-rock album but the band didn't have that many ideas. Usually this is where bands put some spackle and glitter on dull composition by gradually getting louder and adding more layers before that famed post-rock climax that bursts forth and then fades, a phenomenon I've taken to calling crescendo-rock.
Meniscus breaks all of this apart. The songs may be on the longer side for anyone used to radio-friendly fare, but each one is as long as it needs to be. I actually hesitate to call them "songs" as "compositions" fits better, largely because each song has its own structure. It's impossible to break a track from Reflections into component parts. Songs don't have clearly delineated portions of set length nor do they only contain one sound that stretches out with minor variations. Some, like Head Rush, do indeed begin with the slow increase of a single guitar riff that eases the listener into a head-nodding haze while the drums burst into Overhang within seconds.
One thing worth pointing out is that Meniscus is a band that rests heavily on its rhythm section. The drum and bass form the bedrock of most of these tracks, enough so that they seem to be mixed higher than you'd normally find in post-rock (check out album closer Flux). This has a twofold benefit. For one, the drummer is incredibly dynamic, doing far more than simply laying down a background. I'm reminded of a post-rock Neil Peart, if you'll forgive me the hyperbole. It's rare to find him laying down a standard 4/4 with a backbeat or the bassist just taking the octave-down portion of the guitar parts. For two, by having the rhythm section be such a key part in holding the overall "shape" of what's happening, it frees the guitar to really spread its wings and tell the story.
Oh, that guitar. That ethereal guitar. While the rhythm section lays down their foundation, the guitar simply soars above it all, singing (for lack of a better word). You're not going to find Meniscus spending much time on the thicker strings or dazzling with sweep tapping. The guitar's movements dance up and down the scales with the kind of variation and emotion that you'd usually expect from a voice. Taken on the micro scale, pieces here and there can have memorable "riffs", but as they shift, change, and morph it all turns into something far greater, the musical equivalent of a particularly catchy stanza of a poem that's epic en totale.
That's not to say it can't get heavy, or at least as post heavy as a hazy, optimistic post-rock instrumental album can get. Hamster, during its roughly second movement, cranks the volume and crunch up high, but that's all done just for the sake of contrast for the moment just after. The thickly distorted guitars break up and the drums stop, with a few electronic elements in, like a star that went nova and all we're left with is the dust. When it all comes back with a driving, excited beat it's like a universe taking shape. Chaos returns even later in the track, to even greater effect.
What's most remarkable is the ability to feel like a wall of noise without the tone of the album dropping into either noisecore spasms or blastbeat-infused "darker" metal influence. Meniscus is a rare band who can create the feeling of "weight" in less the sense of staring into a tsunami headed your way or the crush of a tar pit, but rather the almost faint-inducing size of seeing a new planet up close.
(I realize I'm using space analogies a lot, forgive me.)
A half-complaint, half-praise for Refractions is that although I've listened through the album probably 10 times by now, I do have to remind myself which moments were parts of which tracks. It's very much the type of album you'll want to listen to fully rather than putting one or two on a Spotify playlist. If you had to, I'd probably pick Fingers for its short length and great driving feel for most of its playtime, but otherwise take an hour, and let the whole epic saga sink in.