Review Summary: An unrelentingly dreary, sparse display of properly exercised minimalism
On Wider Than the Sky, 40 WATT SUN decides to turn down the amps and embrace a sound that immediately feels are more natural and expressive for the band. Though the distortion is gone, all the key elements that were established in their debut album are still present – the plodding tempos, repetitious songwriting, overwhelming feelings of gloom, and saccharine vocal deliveries oozing with longing, love, and loss – which are used as the backbone for a more mature, thoughtful piece of dark rock. It feels as if Patrick Walker and Co. have really come into their element with this release, while improving several aspects of the music, particularly the songwriting.
The primary display here is minimalism done incredibly well – the compositions seem deliberate yet unforced, with real weight behind each sparse, ringing guitar chord. Simplistic but atmospherically congruent and evocative chord progressions seem to repeat in empty space for just long enough to permeate the senses fully, without overstaying their welcome. These long passages are then interspersed with powerful changes in dynamics or mood that are wonderfully amplified by their contrast to the sheer level of ponderousness that surrounds them. Then, when the emotional weight seems almost too much to bear, the compositions release the building energy and often indulge extensively in its liberation before returning to the emptiness that nurtured it. The third track “Another Room” is a prime example of this compositional style.
Minimalism alone is often not particularly compelling musically, and a big key to 40 WATT SUN’s success on this album and seemingly main appeal as a band is the sheer conviction towards the suffocatingly dark feelings that are delivered with enough integrity and weight to stand on their own. A critique for their debut album is that it seemed to rely mostly on this aspect to carry the songs – but this album offers a wider and deeper array of emotional exploration without being able to hide behind a wall of distortion that might otherwise do some of the work. Aesthetically, the themes remain the same with frequent introspective ponderings, often related to love and the weight of the “vast experience” of existence. To put it simply, it’s music to put on and stand alone to, staring out a window at the pouring rain.
On a more technical level, Patrick’s vocal delivery is impeccable and absolutely dripping with emotion while managing to not be too sappy (though it gets close at times). If poor mixing confused listeners of his previous works that perhaps his vocals might be a little nasally, warbly, or weak at times, the performance captured on this release almost completely wipes the slate clean and truly showcases his powerful projection and incredible control over his voice. The guitar playing, despite being somewhat relegated to simpler progressions, is very well done and free of excessive fret noise, timing issues, or botched notes – which would stand out dramatically considering the sparseness of the soundscapes.
The bass is very rich, well-sustained, and an important contrast to the often jangling, isolated guitar notes. Despite a few key licks here and there, it seems mostly content to just offer a powerful grounding for the entire delivery of the music, and in that sense, does its job flawlessly. A similar observation can be made about the drums, though at times they do add a little more density to the songs, especially with the frequent light rolling on the snare. Overall, the rhythm section is played so competently that it almost betrays the serious difficulty of playing such slow, empty musical constructs.
Though not all the songs on here work as well as I think they could (the opener feels a bit weaker than the middle of the album, and the closer’s riffing feels a little dull), this is overall an exceptional piece of work considering its rudimentary musical elements. It’s obvious that Patrick is now really exploiting his musical ambitions and it shows in just how natural every note, vocal passage, and transition feels. Highly recommended for any listener who wants to indulge in sorrowful, contemplative soundscapes – distortion and doom metal be damned.