Activity – Spirit in the Room

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Activity Spirit in the Room review

Early into Spirit in the Room, Activity deliver an address from the Pearly Gates. “These are the chords he heard when entering heaven,” sings Travis Johnson in the second song “Heaven Chords” against a chilling and stark melody, as if it were a dispatch from the afterworld. Is one of them the secret chord that David played and pleased the Lord? Or is it, perhaps, simply the icy progression that guitarist Jess Rees plays beneath Johnson’s gentle rasp, an early indication of Activity’s unique ability to employ a strangely kind of pleasurable disorientation?

The second album by New York’s Activity surveys a place between the material world and some spectral, incorporeal realm. Their songs are dreamily gothic, dark but not overbearingly heavy, creeping along the line where Bauhaus-era 4AD crosses over into the gossamer sheen of Cocteau Twins. The album’s title isn’t coincidental; these are songs that can have the feel of being visited by an apparition, less a malevolent beast than one that only draws you in closer to its ethereal glow.

Most of the songs here hover within this cloistered space, as demonstrated early on with opener “Department of Blood,” whose sputtering drum-machine loop seems to pull it back toward solid ground even as its sparse effects seem to pull it skyward. More often than not they make themselves at home in the weirdness and abstraction of the sounds they conjure, offering a brief and glitchy fragment of curiously pretty sounds on “Ect Frag” or indulging in an otherworldly, wordless exercise in shoegaze on “Icing.”

While Activity at their most cryptically gorgeous can be compelling enough in itself, the strongest moments on Spirit in the Room are those in which they reach their hands through the thick blanket of fog. The driving post-punk single “I Saw His Eyes,” inspired by Johnson’s father undergoing cancer treatment, carries the weight of anxiety over where such a path might lead (“Hey, under the blinding glare/I’ll meet you there“). And “Where the Art Is Hung,” the album’s most eerily beautiful song, Johnson delivers a message of reassurance: “It’s alright, you’re here now.”

Haunted through Spirit in the Room is, it’s never hopelessly morose. As a lyricist, Johnson even frequently flexes a playful linguistic creativity, mirroring the opening line from “Heaven Chords” with the tongue-twisting “these are the scores worn into the floors of dying malls.” Activity navigate this darkness elegantly and cathartically throughout Spirit in the Room, crafting a set of songs that avoids being obvious or overbearing in its feelings of fear or grief while getting more comfortable with the shadows they cast.

Label: Western Vinyl

Year: 2023

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