Review by Gregory S. Burkart
I really hate pigeonholing music into neat, digestible categories... since the best music to be experienced out there often steps outside of genre definitions, it's painful dragging out tired categorical handles when trying to pin down truly inventive artists, because doing so just invites comparison to other bands who may or may not sound anything alike. It's a helpful shorthand sometimes, but ultimately terms like ?Gothic,? Darkwave? or ?Ambient (fill-in-the-blank)? are marketing tools, a form of institutionalized prejudice that offers no hint of what to expect when you first hit the play button. In the case of this stunning new release ? and the musical duo of the same name ? I would rather describe the enveloping mood that filled my living room shortly after I slid this CD into gear.
But first, a little background:
Those who frequent this site are no doubt familiar with the work of Tyler Bates: formerly of the successful indie band Pet (who toured extensively in the mid-'90s with bands like Helmet and Limp Bizkit), the rocker-turned-composer made a big splash this year with his bombastic score for Zack Snyder's 300. Bates' scores have accompanied everything from comedies to documentaries, but his genre work stands tallest in my mind: the chaotic, percussive score to Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects made him a natural choice for the director's Halloween remake - despite the daunting task of adapting one of horror cinema's most beloved music cues - and he's on track to craft the music for Snyder's The Watchmen, arguably the most eagerly anticipated comic adaptation of all time. Bates is skilled in twisting and interlocking diverse musical styles and themes, sometimes coming dangerously close to breaking them in the process. The result is sometimes jarring, often emotionally moving, and usually memorable ? and no less the case with Roseland, his most recent side project.
Joining Bates on this new path is Azam Ali, a welcome participant on several of his film scores (most recently 300), and a sublime vocalist whose delivery is the rich, buttery icing on an already decadent confection. Celebrated for her work in the darkly exotic band Vas, Ali is a vocal chameleon, transforming her voice perfectly to suit a wide range of themes and moods ? which makes her a natural fit for Bates haunting handiwork.
From the opening track ?Other Side Of Me,? I was taken by the duo's ability to extract memorable hooks out of seemingly odd, off-kilter rhythms ? patterns which feel more like questions than musical statements. Despite the warm undertones of Bates' rolling guitar & piano and Ali's smoky technique, it's not at all a restful tune, but instead starts the listener down a path of barely-subdued menace that pervades much of the album. Surprises continue after the opening rhythmic break of ?The Spill,? which will no doubt beg comparison to Portishead only to shake that notion apart with a coarse burst of overdriven baritone guitars and dissonant synth pads that set the music off in a threatening new direction.
Diving headlong into intense melancholy, ?Mothwings? manages to skirt Goth clichés but makes its statement without overstaying its welcome, and makes a perfect lead-in to the more sincerely haunting ?Hollow Feel,? with its sultry, sexy undercurrent of thudding bass, some impressive alto harmonies, and the odd welcome burst of synth weirdness. Upping the sensual ante with the blues-tinged ?Keep It Coming,? Ali descends into a lower range, creating a warm wave of sensation that peaks with each crash of the cymbal and climaxes with a heart-stopping blast of gritty guitars.
Themes and tone shift dramatically into lamentations on fear, faith and futility, starting with disturbing synth-driven dirge ?Forty-Nine Ways,? and reach their sonic apex in ?Bitter Days,? a fast-paced firestorm that calls to mind Siouxsie Sioux backed by Nine Inch Nails. Standing in polar contrast is ?The Reaper's Crown,? which twists Ali's Loreena McKinnitt-style vocal opening around a dark ambient soundscape.
The album standout, ?Believer,? is a sublimely beautiful mini-epic with a slowly-building emotional arc, a cool underlying riff and the group's strongest, most naturally flowing lyrical themes (You're just a small part/In an old man's dream... Don't tempt your soul/With the things you see...?), and ?Light The Stars? ends the journey with a longing, dreamlike coda that drifts softly into the void.
So, how do you classify this elusive, silken ghost of an album? Writers more clever than myself can probably hang a term on it, but I won't even try. Music, when it's done right, has the ability to invite, or even force, the listener to hear, feel or think differently, even if just for a short while. It's a transitory thing, but sometimes there's that brief moment when you aren't just listening to a song... the song, and maybe the person who wrote it, is listening to you.
Yeah, I know, I'm full of crap. But give it a try sometime. This CD would be a good place to start.