Monday, May 6, 2019

Slowness - Berths (2019)

With a name like Slowness, it's hard not to make comparisons to Slowdive, but strangest of all was that until now, their music wasn't actually particularly slow. However, after a five-year wait for a new album that sounds distinctly downbeat, they've finally managed to make good on their name. I got a chance to listen to their new album ahead of its official release, so I'll report what I've heard.

Artist: Slowness
Album: Berths
Release Date: 7 June 2019
Label: Schoolkids Records
Producer: Monte Vallier

01. The Fall
02. Rose
03. Berlin
04. Breathe
05. Sand & Stone
06. Asunder

The first single from Berths, "Rose", is a bit deceptive. It shines with an expansive brightness that doesn't sound too far off from the more conventional shoegaze sound of Slowness' earlier albums. The layers of guitars and harmonies certainly sound familiar. But instead of pulsing, grooving, noisy thickness, "Rose" builds up a field of sound based more around reverb and open space. It's pretty, but there are shades of ponderous darkness.

The second single, "Berlin", loses most of the optimism. The simple but angular guitar riffs, the triangle and rolling toms, and the wispy vocals and synthesizers come across like an overcast sky threatening to rain. Instead of some techno party or metaphor of occupation or reunification, the song appears to be a comparison of the political changes of 1930s Germany to the modern USA. It doesn't sound very encouraging.

The rest of the album is closer to "Berlin" than to "Rose". "The Fall" begins the album with a lengthy haze of guitars and then opens up with a slow beat, a looming, spindly guitar part, and stacked harmonies. Bursts of guitar sound like lightning, and the subtle synthesizer could be a persistent drizzle. The lyrics seem to describe the hopeless inevitability of the changing of the seasons.

The second half of the album is even slower and darker. "Breathe" is edgy, aggressive, and weighted down. "Sand & Stone" is somewhat more peaceful and relaxed, but still foreboding. Most of the song forms an instrumental, enveloping pillow of noise. It slowly separates and fades out in sections such that the listener gets a peak behind the curtain of how the soundscapes are put together. "Asunder" is funereal to the point of being reminiscent of The Cure's "Faith". It's the only song where Julie Lynn's voice dominates, but with lyrics like "All is lost / No wonder", it's no more uplifting than the rest of the album.

With six tracks and only 32 minutes of music, Berths is rather slight, but it feels like the exact opposite. Gone are the upbeat, sparkling elements of their previous albums. This album feels heavy and brooding. "Anon, Pt. IV" (from How to Keep from Falling Off a Mountain, 2014) and "Little King" (from the Hopeless but Otherwise EP, 2011) are the closest touchpoints from Slowness' past work. Both are a bit slower and downbeat, but neither are as doom-laden as anything from Berths. The only exception may be "Rose", but even that is still far off from the pure, massive beauty of "Walls of Blue" (from For Those Who Wish to See the Glass Half Full, 2013).

Nonetheless, there is something cleansing about the change of pace. I applaud that the band chose to branch out into a new direction, and I've picked up that they were trying to write something that suited the spirit of the times. Slowness have let their sound open up in a way that I wouldn't have expected. There's something subtle yet still large and moving in Berths. Maybe it's the omnipresent soundbed of effects and noise, or maybe it's the layers of harmonies, or maybe it's the simple yet foregrounded lead guitar lines. It feels deliberate and studied. It feels like it might be storming now, but that can't last forever.

Score: B

P.S. Here's hoping they make it to Berlin on their next tour!

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