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Arbouretum

Coming Out of the Fog

(Thrill Jockey; US: 22 Jan 2013; UK: 21 Jan 2013)

Over its career, Arbouretum has stretched its dark folk-rock roots in a variety of ways. There’s been sludge and doom and psych-rock and even a bit of prog. Playing with experimental structures and tricky lyrics has made the group hard to pin down, but they’ve benefited from exploring the heavier side of their sound, pushing into metal and letting front man Dave Heumann’s lengthy guitar solos lead the explorations. Newest album Coming out of the Fog doesn’t deviate from the basic Arbouretum model, but in showing more restraint, the group has tamed some of its own energy.


“Restraint”, of course, is a relative term. The songs mostly run around five minutes or more and Heumann still lets loose, but there’s less sense of adventure here. “Oceans Don’t Sing”, one of the disc’s more traditional numbers, works by pairing a sense of refinement (particularly in the first guitar solo) with the rougher general aesthetic and the pretty build to a climax. Even if it’s not musically as intense as what we might expect from the band, it’s still a memorable track.


Other cuts, like opener “The Long Night” offer more of what Arbouretum’s done recently, this time matching a grungy riff with an almost prog-rock sound. It’s this sort of sensibility that makes Arbouretum sound both idiosyncratic and deeply grounded in classic rock. Even at four minutes, though, the track runs too long without going anywhere, with the guitar work not as compelling as it needs to be.


“Renouncer” continues the mid-tempo set that—along with too-steady dynamics—limits the album, but it takes an unusual lyric path, meditating on Saint Simeon Stylites, the Christian ascetic who lived for 37 years atop a pillar after a life of attempted withdrawal. Heumann calls Simeon a “Renouncer of the ground”, creating an odd tension by using a word frequently associated with giving up faith to depict an extremely remarkable man.


Later on the album, “World Split Open” serves it own sort of renunciation, offering an electric rejection of easy truth and the apparent world around us as Heumann sings “To cast aside a world of lies / Where distress and trouble grows / To dispel the legends that surround / An unfolding compass rose”. There’s nice play on the word “legends” here, leading us away from both myths and the physical world described by cartographers with their legends and compass roses. “World Split Open” begins an escape from much of the darkness under examination on tracks such as the murderous “The Promise” and, after an instrumental cut, the languorous “Coming out of the Fog” suggests that there’s solution there. The lyrics keep some ambiguity but do provide surprising optimism.


Heumann’s jammed plenty of ideas into the album, but, while Arbouretum is at least as proficient as ever, Coming out of the Fog lacks the teeth of its predecessors. This artistic vision has more structure, and probably a more sensible formal approach, but it can’t quite carry the songs. Coming out of the Fog might turn out to be a transition album for the group. If it can learn to instill more kinetic energy into more constrained forms, Arbouretum could find itself with something vital.

Rating:

Justin Cober-Lake lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, kids, and dog. His writing has appeared in a number of places, including Stylus, Paste, Chord, and Trouser Press. His work made its first appearance on CD with the release of Todd Goodman's first symphony, Fields of Crimson. He's recently co-founded the literary fly-fishing journal Rise Forms.


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