I heard the sound of ribbiting frogs the other day. I know, you’re stunned. You’re thinking, “gosh, tell me more!” These frog noises were coming from a retail store display of the BBC show Planet Earth playing on a television. But it wasn’t the frogs, necessarily, that caught my attention. Upon hearing the frogs, the opening strains to New Order’s “Perfect Kiss” started playing in my mind. The frog intro to that song was so ingrained in my mind, that I couldn’t fathom the sound could belong to anything else. Upon learning of my mistake, I thought, “Hmmm, frogs on a nature show. Weird.” It didn’t even dawn on me that the actual source of the sound made far more sense than my own remembered association. I’m not sure now whether that’s just the way that my habitual mind works or whether that’s the power of a strong piece of music. It’s probably a little from column `A’ and a little from column `B,’ but let’s explore the idea of the latter a little more closely.
When I first heard “We All Fall Down,” the opening track from iLiKETRAiNS’ Elegies to Lessons Learnt, I was slightly confused. From descriptions of the band I had read, they were classified as post-rock. So, the first strains of echoing sustained guitar notes seemed par for the course. But then I heard frontman David Martin’s doleful yet charismatic voice intoning, “We play the waiting game.” Lyrics in post-rock? OK, yes, Sigur Rós has vocals, but with several songs in Hopelandic, a made-up gibberish language, and the rest in Icelandic, only understood by just over 300,000 people in the world, can those lyrics really count? Regardless, “We All Fall Down” was an example of the rare gift of being able to combine two seemingly disparate elements into a new whole that works far beyond expectation.
Just like most post-rockers, iLiKETRAiNS (typing that repeatedly is going to be a nightmare) follows the quiet, diligent and atmospheric into impassioned, explosive and dramatic playbook to a tee. Like Godspeed You Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky, instruments are used as more of a textural landscape than as a host of rock riffs, chords and progressions. Except, instead of merely presenting that landscape, this Leeds band (phew, got out of typing it again) uses that musical canvas to present their dark tales of history. Songs on Elegies revolve around such footnotes of Britain’s past as Donald Crowhurst (a sailor who went mad on a `round the world’ race and committed suicide), William Brydon (famous for being the only European survivor of a massacre of 4500 soldiers during the first Anglo-Afghan war) and Spencer Perceval (the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated). But it isn’t so much the history that captivates the listener, although it certainly could and very easily. It’s David Martin’s voice, being somewhat a descendant of Ian Curtis, Peter Murphy or Paul Banks. His repeated baritone breathings of lines such as “This town is burning down” (from “Twenty-Five Sins”), “Make an example of me” (from “Voice of Reason”), “This is a breakdown / you are a cancer” (from “Death of an Idealist”), “Hold back the cavalry” (from “Remnants of an Army”) and “It is the end or less a funeral train rotting flesh” (from the spectacular “Death is the End”) ensnare you as lyrics from a captivating frontman should. Martin’s opening lines to each song remind me of the memorable opening lines to Smiths songs. And, as such, I can envision thousands of people mouthing words along to Martin’s vocals as they tour around the world.
iLiKETRAiNS (dammit!) are such an unlikely yet effective mix of styles that it’s hard to believe it hadn’t really been done before. Each element (post-rock atmospheres, gothic delivery, historical subjects) could have existed on its own and, in turn, made the band noticeable. But what we end up with is so much more than any of those individual aspects. Okay, so maybe all three of these parts don’t add up to the happiest album on earth, but very little great music is uplifting. This is pretty much true of any art form. Off the top of my head, Citizen Kane, Schindler’s List and more recently No Country for Old Men are fantastic, some would consider `perfect’ films, and they can be depressing as all get out. Elegies to Lessons Learnt is the perfect title. These are songs about some of the darkest moments in history. They may not be the biggest moments or the most influential, but they teach us anyway. I suppose that only the grandeur of post-rock combined with the `I can make out every word’ delivery of Martin could be the only truly effective way to deliver this material, and in the end, it becomes one powerhouse of an album.
Nick Cave- The Boatman’s Call
Godspeed You Black Emperor- Yanqui U.X.O.