The digital version of Whale Fall‘s sophomore album made an immediate splash when it was released in mid-December, appearing on Echoes and Dust’s fine year-end Top 20 list, as well as a number of post-rock lists. The Madrean is now set to drop on vinyl, accompanied by a 12-page book of Jordan W. Lee photographs. This makes it the rare double-eligible album, which we’re saying now because this sweet LP edition is bound to get some love this December as well.
But let’s start at the beginning. The LA quintet’s self-titled debut album continues to hold up well, four years after its release. One can already hear the hallmarks of what would become a signature sound: the trumpet and violin laid atop the expected post-rock instruments. A clear sense of pace is apparent, along with instinctive interplay and sharp composition. Four years have only honed the band, as the new album boasts a theme (the Madrean region of North America, from desert and mountain to the city of angels), a more driving pace, and clearer mastering. The involvement of Lee underlines the importance of the record to the band; they wanted to offer something special to their fans, and they have.
The opening bass notes of “The Dawn Thief” set the album into motion, and it never lets go. The forward propulsion is such that one expects something new to happen around every bend. When the trumpet enters, one thinks of Morricone, mariachis and the Old West, but with a modern bent. A guitar and glockenspiel breakdown envelops the third minute, setting up a slow build. The band is in no hurry, and even if it were, the journey across the Madrean will be long (okay, 57 minutes). But the album really kicks into gear with “I Shall Sail No More (No More Shall I Sail)”, which is also graced by the album’s best artwork (seen on right). The trumpet has been given new prominence, and a 5-note staccato blast is echoed by the drums in the triumphant finale. This is what post-rock is all about.
As the album rolls on, it translates the sights of the Madrean into sound, from the Tahquitz peaks to the overpasses of L.A. One can imagine a post-rock road trip with this album on infinite repeat. The timbre reveals the grandeur behind the natural sights, the overwhelming impression of so much rock or sand or sea. The pace ranges from near-sludge to almost speed metal, often within a single track, yet never topples into either; while the physical region is one of extremes, these extremes have more to do with vastness than jutting angles. When called upon to score civilization, the band handles it well, as proven in “Overpass L.A.” A nightclub keyboard sound changes the timbre, a reflection of glittering lights and beckoning fame. The piano-led title piece bathes the project in gentle light.
Will it matter in the end if The Madrean is considered a 2014 album or a 2015 album? Not at all ~ it simply gives post-rock fans double the time to check it out. This one was worth the wait. (Richard Allen)