Review Summary: Pandemic post-rock
Commenting on any post-rock record as an Album For Our Times feels strange. The language surrounding the genre from both within and without have been strongly associated with various kinds of fantasy for so long, be it airy-fairy nature-isms or dystopian indulgences, that its settled into a long-held comfort zone as music for daydreamers or hangers-on to conspiracy theories. Its closest associations with hard-hitting real world truths are probably Spiderland
’s contextual association with clinical depression or Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s kitsch soundbites problematising radical figures against uneasy ambience - and you could also make the choice to include Mogwai’s well chronicled pop-baiting strops and pouts. Regardless of how wide you spread the net, all these examples are ancient history by now; as such, they certainly failed to prepare me for how deeply Downy’s seventh untitled record seemed to ground itself in my immediate experience of a world in chaos.
is an oppressive record as rhythmically frenetic as it is melodically sparse, all evocative of what 65daysofstatic’s first couple of albums might have sounded minus a little explosiveness and plus a little moroseness. I’ve always thought that 65days’ music aligned nicely with the theory that their name was derived from a theory that sixty-five days’ worth of disabled communications across a nation was sufficient foundation for a successful coup; there’s an oppressive feeling in their sound, as though they channeled post-rock as a means to burrow into anxious introspection rather than to kick off to euphoric heights. The relation in this case is purely epimusical, but amplify that alignment four times over and you’ll have a pretty good sense of what it feels like to listen to Mudai (7)
in the ages of Covid-19. Everything about this album feels greyscale and fundamentally unstable, full of lurching rhythms and claustrophobic soundscapes that churn over themselves repeatedly; it often feels as though the band are continually shifting their weight under an oppressive burden, never seeming to hold their balance, although they briefly find their feet in moments like “Shikai Furyou” and “Good News”’ volatile climaxes, or “Adaptation”’s tail-end groove. These ‘climaxes’ when they do occur are more abrupt deployments of new instabilities than they are moments of catharsis, and the overall shape of the record is consequentially murky and angular as they come. To this end, it’s telling that they saved the most off-kilter track “Stand Alone” for last, dismissing “Adaptation”’s feint at a concrete centre of gravity and concluding the album on a note of tumult. The execution is a little crass for my liking, but the gesture is clear.
In any case, while Mudai (7)
’s bleak qualities bring it into sync with a dazed world grappling with a developing pandemic, it doesn’t lack for other sources of contextual weight. This is the first Downy record since the untimely death of guitarist and founding member Yutaka Aoki in 2018. Downy have traditionally been a two-guitar band, yet it’s nothing if not haunting how this album ostensibly avoids guitar-centric arrangements while coming off resolutely as a rock record all the same. Vocalist/guitarist Robin Aoki’s Radiohead-esque remunations and winding motifs are both memorable when they emerge, but they feel like icing on the cake compared to the unyielding anti-grooves laid down by drummer Takahiko Akiyama and bassist Kazuhiro Nakamata. These two give the album its foundation and momentum, while synth player/sampler Sunnova furnishes its tone with an arsenal of engaging layers and textures that round off its washed out, anxious atmosphere. It’s unfair to pick star players when each member’s contribution complements the others’ perfectly, but Sunnova’s electronic input is perhaps the most versatile on offer here and the one to which the album owes the greatest part of its success - any other comment would be a discredit to a thoroughly competent post-rock effort governed by synth-heavy soundscapes, glitches, and off-kilter beats. Even moreso than 65daysofstatic, Downy are remarkable in how they blend the aesthetic and atmosphere of an electronic record with the vocabulary of a rock album. Nervous, kinetic and endlessly engaging, Mudai (7)
is exemplary in how it switches between various configurations of bleakness with unpredictable dynamic and structural shifts that will appeal to even the most jaded of post-rockers. It’s must for anyone still following the style, but doubly so for anyone caught in the spirit of today’s headlines.