Oliver Barrett’s Bleeding Heart Narrative officially called it quits in late 2012, opening the door for more work under the Petrels name. We’re a little bit greedy – we’d love to have both – but we’re overjoyed to hear this stunning follow-up to Haeligewielle. Whenever an artist records a definitive debut, one fears a sophomore slump. Fortunately, Barrett has kept fans’ hopes high with a series of singles, EPs and guest appearances. By the release of the new album, the larger question was not, “Will it be any good?” but “What kind of good will it be?” In the past two years, Barrett has explored both drone and rhythm, and while a dance album would not have been out of the question, the textured Onkalo is likely to have a deeper impact. While beats are present, they never dominate; this generous, 74-minute album is more about impression and mood.
Like Haeligewielle, Onkalo is a loose concept album, or as Barrett puts it, “a theme (with) tangents”. (Click here to read Gianmarco Del Re’s comprehensive interview for Fluid Radio.) The albums are connected by a few obvious threads: the rising volumes of “Canute” and “Giulio’s Throat” and the vocal hallmarks of “Concrete” and “On the Dark Great Sea”. Barrett’s signature sound, a blend of bowed strings and heavy keys, would make him an easy entry in a Wire blindfold test. But Onkalo is also a different beast. The percussion on the aforementioned “On the Dark Great Sea” is an early indication of evolution; the choice to close the album with a 20-minute track and an 11-minute track is another. This could have been a double disc, but there’s nothing here that needs to be removed.
The title, which means “hiding place”, refers to a Finnish facility that is currently under construction, meant to house nuclear waste for the next hundred thousand years. The existence of such a facility leads to numerous questions, including those of legacy; when everything else has gone, humans may be known only for their garbage. This sobering thought is the album’s starting point: What endures? What is worth saving? What is humanity’s worth? As a child, Barrett used to attend protests with his parents; opener “Hinckley Point Balloon Release” honors an early experience. Musically, one begins to wonder about longevity as well. A million years from now, an alien species may retrieve Voyager’s golden record. If they can figure out the pictogram, if the record still works, a thousand ifs later, they may draw the conclusion that this is all we were. Or perhaps all that will remain of us will be ancient radio and television signals, bouncing haphazardly throughout universes.
Why do we make art, if not to make an impact or leave an impact? Barrett’s current work causes us to think, if not to act. The creation of art is itself a protest, a proclamation that humanity retains both the ability and the will to surprise. While the listening act is passive, sound can create seeds. In the same way as the earlier optimism of the space race was tempered by military applications and dull disappointments (“Where’s my jetpack?”), the stagnancy of the popular musical climate is challenged by Barrett’s original ideas: twinkles and drones, surges and decrescendos, sound and fury, signifying something. Take for example the introduction of the major theme of “White and Dodger Herald the Atomic Age” at 4:37, a transformation from the spiritual to the physical. The mind yields to the heart, the action to the reaction; the train switches from one track to another.
A physicist experiences a breakthrough and puts down his pen. A construction worker realizes that he is being sickened by his work. A protester asks, “Why am I marching around, holding this sign?” A musician wonders whether his work will endure, or even matter. The fingers are lowered to the keys. The sounds flow forth. Time and space collapse. Everything is connected. (Richard Allen)