review: Dead To A Dying World’s vast new LP ‘Elegy’ (ft. Jarboe, Thor Harris & more)
In the decade since they formed, Dallas collective Dead To A Dying World have been carving out a space for themselves within the world of heavy music that defies genre lines and takes a communal approach that relies as much on guest vocalists and collaborators as it does on the band’s core seven-piece lineup. The reworked version of their 2011 Philip Cope (of Kylesa)-produced debut came packaged with a Leonard Cohen cover, and their 2015 sophomore album Litany featured cameos from members of Pallbearer, Sabbath Assembly, and Pinkish Black. If their approach makes you think of a modern-day Swans or Neurosis, it may interest you that Swans/Neurosis collaborator Jarboe delivers showstealing lead vocals on two songs off their third album Elegy, and that former Swans percussionist Thor Harris contributes to four of its six songs. Jarboe joins Dylan Desmond of Seattle doom greats Bell Witch, Emil Rapstine of dark Dallas band The Angelus, and Dead To A Dying World’s own Mike Yeager and Heidi Moore as the cast of five lead vocalists on Dead To A Dying World’s Profound Lore debut, which is their best and best-sounding album yet.
They worked once again with famed producer Billy Anderson (whose credits also include both Neurosis and Swans, and who also helmed Litany and the reworked version of DTADW’s debut), and Billy helped Dead To A Dying World achieve the clearest and most crisp tones of their career on Elegy. Not to slight the previous two albums, but listening to Elegy back-to-back with either of them is night and day. Elegy is the first album where Dead To A Dying World’s music sounds as larger-than-life as it was written to sound. It’s also the most focused and confident album they’ve made yet. The various styles of music that Elegy explores flow more seamlessly into one another than on Dead To A Dying World’s prior two albums. Elegy opens with a Michael Gira-esque folk song, “Syzygy,” with Mike Yeager’s brooding voice backed by nothing more than a gentle electric guitar, some cello, and some airy backing harmonies from Emil Rapstine. As it fades out, “The Seer’s Embrace” brings in towering, Neurosis-style sludge, Yeager and Moore deliver a dual vocal attack that bounces between sludge metal roars and black metal shrieks, and violist Eva Vonne sends the song skyrocketing upwards with Godspeed You! Black Emperor-esque strings. The song eventually turns quiet, with Eva Vonne’s viola becoming the focal point, and then transitions once again into an Explosions In The Sky type passage with Rapstine’s pristine croon taking over, before returning to the more abrasive sounds of the song’s intro and fading back out into ambience once again. It all happens so naturally, acting as if these heavy and soft sounds were always meant to be together, not oppose each other. It’s not an unheard-of formula, but it’s only rarely done this effectively.
The sequencing of the album is that the lengthy, sprawling songs like “The Seer’s Embrace” alternate with the shorter, softer songs, and “The Seer’s Embrace” is followed by the softer “Vernal Equinox,” the first of two lead vocal turns from Jarboe. Jarboe’s operatic voice gives the album an otherworldly quality, and she soars over the song’s slowcore-ish backdrop, which is embellished by some warm cello from Tim Duffield (ex-Sans Soleil) and Thor Harris’ angelic bells. The other soft song is the most overtly folk, “Hewn from Falling Water,” which sees Emil Rapstine and Dylan Desmond harmonizing on some traditional British folk style melodies over wispy acoustic guitar and Thor Harris’ airy clarinet playing. This sequencing keeps Elegy from ever staying in the same place for too long, but unlike similar albums, the shorter, softer songs act as more than intermissions from the main show. Elegy really works as one complete piece, and the softer songs — especially “Vernal Equinox” — are often its most gripping moments.
“Vernal Equinox” builds gradually towards “Empty Hands, Hollow Hymns,” the album’s centerpiece and lead single. After a folky introduction of its own, “Empty Hands, Hollow Hymns” brings in another burst of heaviness that’s sort of the inverse of “The Seer’s Embrace.” While “The Seer’s Embrace” saw Heidi Moore adding her blackened shriek to sludgy riffs and Mike Yeager’s characteristically sludge metal roar, “Empty Hands, Hollow Hymns” sees Yeager and Moore doing the same type of vocal tradeoff over blastbeat-fueled black metal, once again with those Godspeed-style strings adding a dose of melody and melancholy. And for Elegy‘s many vocalists, some of its most memorable moments are instrumental, as evidenced by “Empty Hands, “Hollow Hymns,” which evolves into a purely post-rock song and features a guitar/viola riff towards the end that makes for Elegy‘s catchiest moment.
Elegy‘s finale is the nearly-15-minute “Of Moss and Stone,” which navigates freely between all the sounds explored on this album, summing up all the twists and turns Dead To A Dying World took on the five previous songs. It jumps from post-rock to black metal to sludge metal and back, it brings back Jarboe for another stunning “singer/songwriter” moment, and it evolves into another of the album’s catchiest guitar/viola riffs. The trip ends not with a satisfying comedown, but with almost two full minutes of harsh, screeching noise. It’s an unpredictable way to end an album that’s been nothing but.
Elegy comes out this Friday (4/19) via Profound Lore, but until then you can stream “The Seer’s Embrace” and “Empty Hands, Hollow Hymns” below. You can also read Invisible Oranges’ interview with the band.