When a vocal tune appears on a mostly instrumental album, it had better have a memorable hook ~ and by God, “Orpheus” does. I shall fight, so that failure is possible, sings the all-female choir, responding to verses sung by Never Sol. The words underline the theme of the album: “the defiance in persisting in lost causes”. There is great grace to be found in the story of Orpheus, from courage to a heart-felt performance that made even the demons cry. If Eurydice was lost, was it all in vain? Or does nobility sometimes lie in tragedy?
As established on previous albums, Oliver Barrett (Petrels) is a literate composer, inspired by numerous works, both fictional and non-fictional. “Thangen After Dothe” takes its lead from Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, a famous sci-fi novel about an androgynous society. But St. Jude (patron saint of lost causes) is also name-checked, and seems to be featured on the cover along with … Humphrey Bogart? No, film fans, the image is instead that of Eddie Constantine in Jean-Luc Godard’s sci-fi classic Alphaville. The actors simply share a love of film noir and wear similar hats. The cover art (also by Barrett) provides further clues to the music found within, the only downside being that it makes the album seem demonic when it is more properly defined as ritualistic.
Flailing Tomb is very much an album of two parts, which makes it a perfect fit for vinyl, but a bit awkward on CD ~ the energy takes a severe dip at the midway point, which makes sense when one flips a record but is distracting when listening to a disc. Side A is what one expects from Petrels, while Side B is something new. None of the artist’s recent solo cello improvisations are found here (although they remain free to download on his Bandcamp page). These have always seemed like side projects, rather than the “Petrels sound.” But Barrett’s immersive, synthesized drones are front and center on the gorgeous opening track, “We Are Falling Into the Heart of the Sun”, which would seem a perfect accompaniment to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. While that film isn’t referenced in the liner notes, we’re sure Barrett has seen it, and the plot fits; earth itself may be a lost cause, and the same holds true for the mission. The song ends not with a bang, but with a solar flare, leading to “Thangen After Dothe”, whose synth line echoes that of The Cure’s “A Forest.” Children are playing in this forest, which seems sparse until the final ninety seconds, when a dark vocal emerges from the woods. And then comes “Orpheus”, whose lyrics are also based on lines from “Alphaville”. The choir is a lovely touch, and the a cappella breakdown at 6:16 provides the album’s best single segment (echoed at 7:40). But the 80s synth that enters in the second minute should not be discounted, as it helps the track to escape the atmosphere with its oxygen mask intact.
The entirely of Side B is a single, three-part track, much of it written as an alternate score to the Godard film. In this triptych, Barrett breaks out of his previous confines and proceeds to rock. The track begins with a field recording of a busy intersection (although it may be part of the film). Then handclaps, synth and a steady drone. The drums take center stage at the end of part two, but part three begins with guitars – lots of guitars. This drone/rock hybrid builds steadily in volume and density until it fills the speakers and the room in which it is played. By the end of the third section, one realizes that there is more than one Petrels sound: the one we associate with Petrels, and whatever he wants to do next. The artist has never rested on his laurels, which is why we continue to follow his every musical move. Failure is possible – with this many changes, he may lose people along the way – but he will continue to fight, because the fight counts more than any single goal. (Richard Allen)