Review Summary: Actual loneliness, or just missing the point?
Parting Gift are a fresh group from Manchester whose style is probably best described as ‘progressive post-hardcore’ but is more accurately one of those contemporary genre cocktails that passes as innovation for bands who play 100% rock music but want to cultivate (read: superimpose) atmosphere without sacrificing the basic structure and arrangement of what are doubtless reliable live numbers. That is to say, it grasps for the stars and regular gig-goers in equal measure and ends up with limited results on both fronts.
The first thing that jumps out here is the production, which epitomises pretty much every stylistic embarrassment that mars the aural aesthetic of 2010s guitar music. Think of A Lot Like Birds' sound circa DIVISI (sorry) and then apply this to a set of ‘atmospheric’ songs so superficial in their atmosphere that their reverb might as well count as its own genre. Oh, and then strip out its budget so that what at its best would come across as obnoxious gloss and sheen here comes out as overcompressed guitar mush, inaudible bass and an EQ metric that seems to disintegrate anything sub-3000Hz, squeaky clean vocals, and the deadbeat trope of slathering everything the periphery of the mix in superethereal soundscapes but leaving the drums crystal clear right at the centre with every beat landing crisp because yes why wouldn’t we want to hear the kick drum land like your DIY-obsessed neighbour hammering nails into a new piece of dubious tack without respite all bloody weekend.
At least Deafheaven had the decency to use their kick drum to augment the low end of the mix and save the mids for their snares.
As for the soundscapes, they just about hold up but more as a constant backdrop to the rest of the sound than an interesting interactive component. Some will say it’s ‘shoegazey’ because there are washed out keyboards with layers upon layers of reverb, but the arrangement is too sterile to be genuinely atmospheric in and of itself and the keys’ habit of copying whatever is going on in the main chord progressions does not elevate them. In the same way that the 1975’s insipid forays into ambient instrumentals do not constitute post-rock, this is not a shoegaze hybrid, although the constant expansive texturing reminds me of more interesting and successful experiments with that style, like what Shinsei Kamattechan achieved on Tsumanne
. For those unfamiliar, Tsumanne
is a morbidly depressive outing of irreverent dream pop that has almost nothing in common with this EP aside from some vague textural similarities, so the fact that it is both evoked and made to seem an attractive alternative for me is most likely due to this album’s inefficacy to hold my attention and should not be taken as a good sign by any means.
I don’t enjoy throwing young bands under the bus and (while entirely relevant) these aesthetic complaints are hardly exclusive to Parting Gift. Hell, I don’t even know how much autonomy they had in the mixing of their album (although it would be patronising to impose that level of suspension of disbelief). Perhaps they should be seen as the victims of a tasteless stylistic convention rather than architects or perpetuators of it. I certainly feel somewhat clement given that their songwriting has some encouraging elements of ambition and the performances are reasonably energetic in a way that sometimes
pierces the production and glacial atmosphere and other times is subsumed by it.
and the title track are the best examples of how the band play their atmospheric sound against more intense rock sounds; this fusion generally works and is primarily held back by the production, predictable song structures and a string of vocal melodies pulled straight from the emo recycling mill. This sounds like a worrying quantity of stumbling blocks, but the songs are pulled off with enough momentum that none of them counts for much individually. On the other hand, 3-07 (Moonlight)
are less upbeat affairs that engage more directly with space and atmosphere; while neither of these makes any outright missteps, their vagueness and forgettability is indicative of the superficial role of atmosphere on this EP.
And then there’s the six minute centrepiece Without Sin
, which serves as an apt encapsulation of all Ensom
’s strengths and failings. The song’s opening explodes into something momentous and finally captures that panoramic scale that the tone and aesthetic of this release seems so firmly directed towards, only for everything to be sunk by a tepid chorus with bland vocals that recycles the opening’s grandeur and does not benefit from playing out like a note-for-note copy of Arcane Roots’ Resolve
. A mixed bag, then, but not without its moments.
The biggest misgiving I have about Ensom
is over what its attempts at epic scope and majesty are actually in aid of. It’s stylistically ambitious, but I’m still somewhat unsure what the substance of the EP really is. The band don’t have much apparent chemistry, relying on functional but straightforward arrangements, and the lyrics are over-earnest pseudo-poetic prattle that sound as second-rate and naff as the production stylings. The album title is apparently Danish for ‘lonely’ (similar to the German ‘einsam’) but it is beyond me what this adds to character beyond a nod towards a face-value lyrical preoccupation with, erm… loneliness. Still unsatisfied, I went on a hunt for interview material and was rewarded with the following soundbyte about Pale
from frontman Zac Vernon:
“Pale is the emptiness one cannot escape. It returns when the mind is idle. It seeks no endgame. It lives and breathes pain and it is the opposite of love. In Pale, the sacred grounds appear for the first time.”
Now, I might be all out of good faith at this point, but if this isn’t indicative of a focus on styleless style over resonant substance, I don’t know what is. Parting Gift’s performance here gives me the impression that they are (rightly) excited about their attempts to experiment with style and scale, but they come very far from making either of these things their own here. A little more inspiration in the songwriting department and more character in arrangements across the board would work wonders here, but at the end of the day there’s enough blandness and tastelessness here that just about any shake-up of the band’s current formula would be welcome.