Review Summary: Lock up your Daughters
It all starts with Daughters. You know, those
Daughters – and since we’re keeping the story short, for all intents and purposes the Daughters story starts in 2018 with their comeback record You Won’t Get What You Want
(apologies to their 2010 self-titled mini-masterpiece). That album was a game changer for many people, launching the quartet from noise rock cult heroes to a household name for all things dark and draining. The adjustments it made to the band’s style are legendary at this point, but a quick once-over can’t hurt: where once Daughters had played a demented rock ‘n’ roll caricature, suddenly they were knee deep in an industrial palette, less suited to explosive thrills than to harrowing bleakness and uncomfortable levels of tension.
Contrary to popular opinion, I always thought this transition boded less well for frontman Alexis Marshall than for any of the other Daughters-in-union. On the face of it, his performance seemed well-gauged: in adopting a dead-eyed register with inflections of apparently uncontainable savagery, I could certainly see him as a self-styled wretch preaching doom to his own kind, from whichever dejected soapbox or grotty bar the song in question called for. The affect was obvious, as were his sources: at times he evoked the deadpan menace of a Michael Gira or a bygone Nick Cave, at others he reached for the primal vocal contortions you’d associate with a David Yow or a Eugene Robinson. Something was missing, however; barring Cave, every vocalist mentioned has a knack for animating the most profane parts of their subject matter with abstract or imaginative facets of delivery, and I never got anything approaching the same magnetism from Marshall’s sneering literalisations of all too real places that neither you nor I ever needed to be told we would rather not be. Barring the knockout finale “Guest House”, I found that Marshall’s approximations of savagery were outgunned by his bandmates’ and that much of the album rather dragged its heels as a result. Without putting much thought into it, the prospect of Marshall helming a solo record seemed like the last thing I wanted to come out of Daughters in their present form.
I don’t expect anything approaching widespread agreement so far, so it’s fortunate this is not a You Won’t Get What You Want
review. We’re dealing with Marshall’s solo debut House of Lull . House of When
, and if there’s just one single point of consensus that forms concerning this record, it should be over the extent to which his vocal stylisations benefit from being explored in their own dedicated space. It took just three minutes of this record’s extraordinary opener “Drink from the Oceans . Nothing Can Harm You” before I realised this. Over the course of this track, Marshall goes from distant and eerie to visceral and frayed, ratcheting up the intensity across each line with masterful precision. His delivery smacks at every turn of a mounting desperation, some thirst or craving, yet he refuses to indulge this with a climax or moment of release at any point. The track’s yearning is all the more powerful for its lack of satiation. Pushing himself further and further this way, he taps into something feral and arresting that you could kind of
hear hints of on Daughters records, but which never had a chance to fully materialise amidst the group’s chemistry and songwriting momentum. Its expression here is nothing if not focal here.
If “Drink from the Oceans...” finally asserts the full spectrum of what Marshall can do behind the mic on his own terms, the rest of the album zeroes in on his individual strengths in various guises. These quite rightly carry a whiff of home game confidence; many of them can be taken as defining performances. Anyone susceptible to Marshall at his most vicious will be delighted with “It Just Doesn't Feel Good Anymore”’s Gira-esque fire and brimstone, whereas the ominous drone closer “Night Moving” proves that he can sound just as unsettling at his most hushed. Single “Hounds in the Abyss” sees him hold the floor for six solid minutes purely through the strain of his inflection across one repeated question (Are you...?
). Incidentally, that you
address ties in neatly to the more insidious appeal of his register throughout the album. Similarly to “Guest House”’s now-iconic Let me in
, it’s a simple device that puts the listener on the receiving end of Marshall’s ramblings, by virtue of which they are too focused to remain mere ramblings, one half of a broken dialogue. The specific bearing of this for individual listeners isn’t to be generalised over, but it sure as hell adds an extra level of heft to each line. In any case, if House of Lull...
was chartered as a dedicated space for Marshall’s performance, you can rest assured that his smartness and resolve are well up to the task of rounding it off as such.
The record feels very carefully constructed to this end. Whereas You Won’t Get What You Want
’s menacing progressions frequently put Marshall’s horror show into competition with his bandmates’, House of Lull . House of When
’s palette is sparser, more invested in using its arrangements as a source of tension than for shock value. Marshall never finds himself upstaged the way he did alongside Daughters guitarist Nicholas Sadler’s mangled pedal experiments; the album’s arrangements are remarkably sensitive to the nuances of his delivery, serving as backdrops that soak in the tone of his performance rather than actively contraposing it. Even more than You Won’t Get What You Want
, this record eschews melody, favouring the suggestive power of empty space and harshness of unfamiliar tones.
This is particularly impressive given the innovation and, at points, potential originality of its vocabulary. This ranges from “Hounds In The Abyss”’ shimmering buzz to “It Just Doesn't Feel Good Anymore”’s furious Zorn-like saxophone to “Youth As Religion”’s dense weave of rasping bows and resonant drones, presumably the manifestation of the pieces of scrap metal that Marshall references in interview with Artist Decoded. The album’s most maximalist instances are pulled off with similar flair – take the hideous wall of noise that drops halfway “Religion As Leader” alongside a hair-raising appearance from Marshall’s partner and labelmate Lingua Ignota. Rather than panning out as a shapeless stab at chaos, this noise-wall is startling first and foremost in how it plays off against the lurching drum beat that runs through the rest of the track, equal parts supporting and threatening to topple it with each iteration. The songwriting mentality appears to be less turn up the heat!
and much more a well-considered attempt to eke even more out of a fundamental layer. It is just one of many shrewd arrangement decisions made throughout the album.
The record also incorporates found sounds, with somewhat more mixed results. “They Can Lie There Forever” fares the best in this respect, drawing great disconcertion from squealing (mice?) and some form of clattering. On the other hand, “No Truth in the Body”’s unbroken backdrop of coin tossing rather overstays its welcome, too deliberate and too protracted for its own good. The track never moves beyond the we get it
point that establishes itself roughly halfway; compared to the riveting flow of suspense that underscores Marshall’s other spoken word offering “Youth As Religion”, this one falls a little flat. The same goes for the most Daughters-esque piece “Open Mouth”, which starts off promisingly with its backdrop of pounding toms and buzzing feedback but loses steam halfway in a rather muddled layering of vocal loops and blaring resonances. If there’s one song that leaves more to be desired as far as pacing and arrangement are concerned, this is the one.
However, Marshall himself is so central to this record that it’s unhelpful to unpick his supporting layers in too much detail. He accomplishes a great deal here, proving in no uncertain terms that he very much does
belong in the same conversations as his aforementioned stylistic forebears after all. House of Lull . House of When
is engaging and inspired, deliciously expansive in its best moments but impressively succinct as a whole. It strikes me as the work of someone greatly confident in his talents, but moreover keenly self-aware of how best to channel them. Alexis Marshall is a veteran frontman at this point, so it follows that he knows his own worth, but I’m glad he refuted my misgivings about his capabilities quite so resolutely. It takes a strong record to make being wrong feel this good. Hats off. This is apparently the first time he’s had complete creative control on an album; it’s a real pulseracer to consider that, maybe, this is just him getting started...