With every advance in musical technology, more artists seem to lament the death of the album, citing the audience’s shorter attention spans, their ability to purchase songs singly, and their tendency to make playlists that destroy the integrity of an album. Musicians have been attempting to deconstruct and/or redefine the album in response. Some create concept albums where the songs are so interdependent that the artist can’t dream of anyone listening to the songs in any other way. Some self-deconstruct the notion of the album, offering non-album formats for their releases, such as the ability to download a song a day. On Power + Light, 50 Foot Wave looks to the past to cope with the always future-minded musical present.
50 Foot Wave is most known as Kristin Hersh’s vehicle when she’s not fronting Throwing Muses or working on her solo career. But, as Power + Light proves again and again, Hersh is only one-third of this wave, which relies as much on animalistic percussion, driving bass, and relentless electric guitar work as it does on her vocals. Credit for this goes to her bandmates, Bernard Georges (bass) and Rob Ahlers (percussion).
50 Foot Wave has made a habit of coping with the perceived death of the album by issuing EPs instead of full-length albums. Attention spans are less challenged, the price point is lower, and cohesion is established more easily. Making a career-long project of this more dated format serves them well, but for Power + Light, Hersh and company reach farther into the past, issuing the only physical copies of this album on vinyl—otherwise, it’s available for free download.
Then there is the reach into the classical past. This EP contains not seven songs, but seven movements, all of which are part of one 25-minute track. The movements have their own titles, making the ‘song’ vs. ‘movement’ question one that could be debated ad infinitum. But whatever the short pieces comprising this album are, they all fit together like bricks in a singular wall of sound. There is no sense of this EP’s format being the hapless mistake of a goofy sound engineer, and the remarkably interlocking nature of the movements is just one of many factors that make Power + Light simply brilliant.
Jangly powerpop bass starts out “Medicine Rush”, the first movement, though grungy guitar and feral loops of Hersh’s ululations soon enter the scene. Then everything happens at once. Rather than one sound coming to the forefront, each band member contributes at top volume, and often contributes relentless repetition at that. Hersh’s only decipherable lyrics are the ones repeated over and over in a movement, such as “Honeysuckle”‘s “I’d rather be fucking than fighting”. Now and then, a head-banging, melodic riff appears, usually to be displaced moments later by a new onslaught of perfect cacocphony.
“Skeleton Key” is the most pretty and heartbreaking movement, Hersh’s voice poignantly reminding listeners of her infinite power to be thoroughly emotive even when channeling abstract lyrics like “Grab me, grab your skeleton key / And don’t forget to breathe”. This is also the first movement where Victor Lawrence’s gorgeous cello work is audible, and its minimal appearance only serves to make the listener crave it more.
“Skeleton Key” gives way to the last three movements, “Broke”, “Wax”, and “Sun Dog Coma”. At this point, Power + Light could go anywhere, but it continues the rising action throughout. The always insistent sound somehow gains more urgency as it nears the climax of “Sun Dog Coma”, especially memorable for Ahlers’s superhuman drumming.
Power + Light is not for everyone, and that’s the reason everyone should hear it. It is a piece of music that requires full surrender, not just of half an hour, but of ego as well. Hearing it necessitates fully listening, one’s own emotions and internal monologues put aside for the driving present tense. Zen has never been so loud.