As the pandemic bodies continue to pile up, awaiting burial, Kistvaen is a reminder of ancient practices. The title refers to the Neolithic/Bronze Age granite tombs of Dartmoor, surrounded by small stones and covered with mounds of earth (at least until people dug them up to see what was inside). In “Assembly,” one can hear the pain of the mourners, ferrying their dead through song. Phil Owen sounds completely distraught, while Roly Porter surrounds him with ominous textures.
The album grows darker as it progresses. The cavernous echoes of “Burial” suggest deep unexcavated tombs, and stand in stark contrast to modern approaches, especially the crassly secular (funerals that skirt the topic of death to concentrate on whatever the deceased was a “fan” of ~ for example a sports team or film franchise). While listening, one remembers the deep hole of grief that awaits the mourner: questions about good and evil, reward and punishment, the existence of a hereafter. In ancient times, cloaked bodies were surrendered to the unknown.
The stringed elegies of “Burial” suggest sorrow and loss. What are we without the person who is gone? Are we still complete? Are they still complete, or complete for the first time, or truly gone? The vocal loops of “Open Door” reflect repeating thoughts, emotional hauntings, spiritual visitations. There is great reverence despite the gloom. If anything, Porter gives the mourner permission to collapse.
The album’s centerpiece, the quarter-hour “Passage,” begins with ghostly chains before descending like Orpheus into an uncharted hell. While the album is called beatless, there are beats, beginning at 4:31, like the loud plodding of an unseen giant. When these recede, they make room for mighty winds of drone, arriving like confusion, guilt and despair. One can glean the first four stages of grief in these immersive, unrelenting sounds. But will it end in acceptance? The final minutes of “Passage” tilt in that direction, though still drenched in tears. The title track suggests crackling fire, a soft goodbye. Tomorrow the sun will rise on grave and mourner alike. (Richard Allen)