Review Summary: As Orson Welles put it: "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story."
It's low-hanging fruit at this point to comment on the sociopolitical landscape here in October 2019, but sometimes I think about Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" and wonder what might comprise the lyrics between 1979-2019 (the same window Billy Joel used, although I might need to wait another decade since the years he used were 1949-1989 and I don't want to have too much overlap). Would there be a recency bias? For example, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has captivated the world with her environmental activism, yet she's received a deluge of vitriol, suggesting that she is an actress hired by a PR firm, someone who is mentally ill and should have been aborted, but otherwise is a "very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future." Alrighty then!
I bring up climate change since it serves, in part, as the backdrop that is Australian sextet We Lost the Sea's newest offering, Triumph & Disaster
. The band describe the record as "a lament for the planet, all the people on it, and the beauty that will be left behind," through the lens of a post-apocalyptic children's story, with the record serving as its soundtrack. After the cathartic Departure Songs
(and the heartbreaking personal tragedy that served as a precursor to its release), does We Lost the Sea's latest album do enough to escape Departure
's immense shadow?
Triumph & Disaster
commences with the aptly-named "Towers", a monolithic juggernaut whose passages are shrewdly demarcated into what sounds like a story-within-a-story narrative. Beginning with delay-laden guitar, the instrumentation segues into a distortion-heavy, apocalyptic motif. Like a hurricane, "Towers" slowly builds in intensity, with the apex of its crescendo exploding into sludgy delirium reminiscent of genre compatriots ISIS, Russian Circles, or Pelican. As the barrage abates, Earth's The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull
springs to mind -- and not just because the right-channel guitar sounds like an irritated swarm -- but because of how richly-layered the instrumentation is. Somber piano and brushed cymbals simulate the calm after the storm, temporarily emanating a sensation of soothing serenity. It all proves to be a red herring; after all, the devastation laid in "Towers"' first half did not truly dissipate. The piano and mellotron -- once harbingers of respite -- become more frantic and frenetic in pace amidst the Boris-like droning, Nathaniel D'Ugo's snare more immediate, and the cascading trio of guitars all lead to one of the most satisfying zeniths in third-wave post-rock this year. Expertly crafted, "Towers" is indisputably Triumph & Disaster
Follow-up single "A Beautiful Collapse" propels the record along, continuing to intersperse melancholic, slow-burning ambiance with explosive cacophony. An assertive Kieran Elliott bass line, pummeling percussion, and another emphatic climax are "Collapse"'s peaks, and Mathew Kelly excels in utilizing synthesizer to magnify the song's main guitar theme. While the track doesn't gratuitously rehash the usual genre tropes, outside of the stellar aforementioned focal points, the track seemingly exists just to exist -- neither propelling the record forward nor advancing the story in an appreciable manner. "Dust", the record's first short (comparatively speaking) transition piece, falls into a comparable trap, although the forlorn trumpet enhances the swirling ambiance leading into "Parting Ways".
Speaking of, the album's other two gargantuan songs, "Parting Ways" and "The Last Sun", similarly pale in comparison to the hulking "Towers". However, Triumph & Disaster
is buoyed by the palpably brighter sheen in this section. Is this intentional, given that the album's backdrop is that of a children's story? To heal in the wake of the albatross that was Departure Songs
and the tragic circumstances We Lost the Sea faced prior to that album's release? As such, the cinematic "Parting Ways" is smartly placed at the record's midpoint, balancing pensive, brooding atmosphere in its first half, with thundering guitar swells from Matt Harvey, Mark Owen, and Carl Whitbread dominating the song's latter section. In between "Parting Ways" and penultimate "The Last Sun" sits "Distant Shores", a sauntering, meditative palate-cleanser with twangy steel guitar and funereal keys providing a short reprieve from the havoc. Meanwhile, "The Last Sun" blitzes from the onset, with feverish, dissonant guitars giving way to another contemplative, placid segment. True to its name, it's at this point that Triumph & Disaster
returns to darker, bleaker, and more ominous tones, especially when "The Last Sun" seemingly falls off a cliff in its last minute, with grim synths and austere droning seemingly signaling the end of times.
The record concludes with "Mother's Hymn", featuring the resplendent vocals of Louise Nutting (Wartime Sweethearts) and is the first We Lost the Sea song with vocals since The Quietest Place on Earth
. From a storytelling perspective, it's a satiating closer, leaving it up to interpretation as to whether or not the first six tracks are the mother portending the end of the world to her child by way of a bedtime story (a la 12 Monkeys
, a macabre Back to the Future
, or a gruesome A Christmas Carol
), as a cautionary tale to the listener in modern times, as a final goodbye together before being swallowed up in their graves on their last day on Earth, or perhaps something else entirely. In terms of musical performance, the epilogue is solemn ("We bled the earth dry while guilt soaked through our veins"), yet hopeful ("Are we really too late?"). The climate crisis is of our own doing, yet the album suggests that it's up to us to be empowered to reverse course and do what we can to protect our planet. In all, Triumph & Disaster
is a bit too top-heavy due to the sheer magnitude of its opener, but does admirably well in escaping the shadow of Departure Songs