The air raid siren that emerges in “Involuntary,” the leadoff track on Bare Wire Son’s Off Black, isn’t exactly subtle, but it is appropriate. Off Black is a bleak elegy of an album, a scorched landscape of leveled structures and smoldering cinders. There’s scarcely a major key melody to be found, nor many moments of levity or lightness. Throughout its 65 minutes are 14 exercises in harrowing beauty, steeped in grief and visions of the apocalypse—some of them breathtaking, all of them arresting.
Off Black, the second album by British-born artist Olin Janusz, was written while he lived in Poland and loosely revolves around narratives of World War I. He took inspiration from journals written during the Great War, including those written by expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz, and his melodic interpretations of those experiences often feel like the musical equivalent of Kollwitz’s illustrations. These are dirges haunted by specters with darkened eyes, caked in various shades of charcoal.
Janusz explores the destruction and atrocities of war through mostly lengthy, atmospheric pieces that evoke Godspeed You! Black Emperor at their most mournful or Swans at their most restrained. The darkness here is palpable, but it’s a heaviness that’s more emotional than musical. “Cenotaph” is elegiac, even cacophonous in its squealing strings and clanging bell tones, but its percussion is barely there, its melodic elements mostly droning rather than urgent or crashing. “The Gore” isn’t a particularly subtle title, either, but there’s a gorgeous density to it, its juxtaposition of guitar strums and weeping harmonium wheeze coming together like a particularly spooky form of shoegaze. When a song does build up into something bigger and more intensely pulsing, as “The Bellows” does, it’s often after long periods of eerie stillness. The climax eventually arrives, but Bare Wire Son invite an uncomfortable tension to stick around for a while beforehand.
In moments such as “Red Glass,” the album’s penultimate track, there’s a grace that accompanies the fear and darkness that occupies every empty space throughout the album. There’s little here that isn’t deeply unsettling, but there’s an accessibility that accompanies Off Black‘s eeriest moments. Even if the landscape that forms the backdrop of the album is bathed in ash, there’s something rich and mesmerizing beneath its layers of gray.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.