When I think Canada, I think BIG. I imagine looming pines and massive open fields as the background to roiling, epic dramas. I see wolverines stalking the countryside that look as if they’d been thawed out of glaciers left over from the Ice Age. My mind’s eye conjures up burly lumberjacks leaving hills of sawdust in their wake and wrestling grizzlies for cheap entertainment.
But I’ve never actually been to Canada, and that might explain why I’m always mystified as to the inspiration for the music Constellation Records puts out. It’s still all very grand and alive, but the bands on this label are soul-spelunkers, plunging down into the darkest crevices of sorrow in the human heart, and coming back with gorgeous jewels no one expected to be growing there. Their latest compilation, Song of the Silent Land, is a whirlpool of strange, sad sounds from the past year or so, many of them from unreleased tracks that put the indie-rock tag to shame.
The music doesn’t fit easily under any genre heading, though “experimental” and “electronic” are a start for much of Constellation’s Old Guard. Do Make Say Think is the first of several bands on the album that pound out layered drumbeats and machine-noise instrumentals which, surprisingly enough, are all pretty aurally digestible. “Winter Hymn Winter Hymn Winter Hymn” (which is a five minute track condensed out of their entire last album) begins with scary feedback and what sounds like an electrical fire quietly burning itself out. Just as what you thought was a quiet intro to the next track begins to fade, though, the groaning of muted trumpets and a wave of drum rolls announces a raging wall of metallic riffs. Very different, but also very good, if you can enjoy a less traditional musical structure.
The bands on Song that share this same musical aesthetic (Exhaust, HangedUp, re:) play more than just pretentious noise. They manage to convey very primal, human emotion through artificial media, and the result is both stirringly familiar and uncomfortably alien. They do have a major flaw, however: because this faction of the roster is made entirely of art-rock instrumentals, it’s somewhat difficult to tell the difference between the individual groups (I suspect the label’s incestuous band mate swapping has something to do with this). There are subtle hints, but they’re minor, and it leaves you wishing that for all the original music Constellation makes, there was more diversity within the label.
Luckily, Song includes some of the softer, more conventional work that Constellation doesn’t always get recognized for. Elizabeth Anka Vajagic’s contribution is a quiet, soulful lament over echoing harp strings, while Black Ox Orkestar tosses a curve ball with their strange brand of klezmer-rock sung entirely in Yiddish.
Sackville comes off like a countrified Godspeed You! Black Emperor, though trading G.Y.B.E.’s orchestral armada for a more minimal approach. On “This Machine,” acoustic guitar and cello accompany Gabe Levine’s drawling as he quietly rails against a mechanistic society “with glass walls and spitting dogs.” I’ve heard Sackville described as “folk-punk,” and that sums them up pretty well on Song—beneath their gentle ballads lurks a disturbing, rebellious anger they funnel through their lyrics.
Frankie Sparo let’s loose an unreleased song called “See My Film” that shows off his weary vocals over swells of violins and guitars. He’s an amazing artist, if simply for the fact that you wouldn’t imagine the music of a man who sounds as if he’s uttering his dying breath could be so compelling. Band mathematicians might be tempted to tack a label like “zombie pop” over his albums.
The real treat is saved for last, of course, with a live recording of Godspeed’s “Outro,” a gentle piece featuring lilting violins, tinkling glockenspiels, and crashing cymbals. It’s a beautiful, dreamy song, and for a band that’s earned the right to be the official harbinger of the Apocalypse, it’s quite a surprise.
Maybe the Godspeed crew finally moved out of the abandoned railway station they practice in and found a brilliant, shiny Canada like the one in my dreams. If so, they should let the rest of the bands on Constellation know—most of them still sound like they’re perpetually recording the soundtrack to Tetsuo the Iron Man. Even so, Constellation puts out albums that have an aesthetic of beauty you’ll never find on the radio, and Song of the Silent Land is a perfect example.
Do Make Say Think — Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn
Fly Pan Am — N’ecoutez Pas
Silver Mt. Zion — Born into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward