Some people surely lament the moment that rock ‘n’ roll became “art”—a moment marking the death of fun, the death of joyous amateurism, the music’s descent into the kind of self-consciousness that long ago overtook so many other styles of music. But that moment, of course, came and went long ago. The list of rock “masterpieces” that could not find your ass with a dowsing stick neither begins nor ends with Dark Side of the Moon.
The work of Daniel Burton surely falls into this category. And how you feel about Offshore will probably be guided by your standing on the question of “fun” in rock. Burton’s band, Early Day Miners, is not fun. It is grand and artful and deadly serious. It is static and cinematic. It is produced by John McIntyre (of Tortoise—and it is less fun and less playful than Tortoise, by a longshot). It is the longest 38 minutes I’ve endured all year.
But it’s also beautiful and hypnotic.
Offshore consists of six “songs” arranged into two essentially continuous suites of music. The tempos—and I’m tempted here to talk about “pulse” rather than tempo—are largely the same in all the tracks, contributing to the sense that the entire disc is one concept that simply mutates into different forms as it insists its way forward. Generally, the textures of the music are gentle and open rather than harsh. Like a fog rolling across the landscape, Offshore creeps translucently.
The opening track, “Land of Pale Saints”, is the most rockingly persistent—a shifting series of strummed guitar chords that seems anthemic at first. Over its nine minutes, however, this instrumental track comes to seem almost like one of Steve Reich’s shifting, phased patterns—with the strummed chords repeating but subtly rearranging. But you might, less charitably, also hear it as an insanely long introduction that begs to be interrupted by the main event.
What is the main event in Offshore? This is a tough question to answer. When the vocals arrive with “Deserter”, they are delivered in Burton’s wan indie-rock voice—cryptically lamenting a battlefield where “forefathers were given ranks / shells and mortars / artillery down in water.” Burton’s voice is etched with a lovely high harmony from Kate Long. But the singing is really just another instrumental voice for the arrangement, perhaps—another color painted on the soundscape. “Sans Revival” grows out of that tune—shifting the poetic space (to “running hand in hand” “give into temptation” “sever all relations”—??) but not really the instrumental scene.
This first suite is like a concerto for rock drumming, as only Matt Griffin seems to be given latitude for passion. He can occasionally fire the band into a climax, but they are mediated climaxes at best. This is music more concerned with flow and texture than storytelling of any kind. It means to get the layers and feel just right, remaining unconcerned with notions of narrative, musical or otherwise.
The most successful track may be “Return of the Native”, the start of the second “suite”. The vocal is handled by Amber Webber (of Black Mountain), and her wispy tone blends nicely with a cheesecloth groove set up by the band. Here and on “Silent Tents”, the bass bounces independent of the drums, as if this were a pseudo-jazz groove or a square bossa-nova feel. The airiness serves Burton’s purposes well—the trance is deeper as the sound swings just a bit more.
Offshore closes with its most puzzling note, “Hymn Beneath the Palisades”. Very nearly an ambient track, this is an Eno-storm of pulsing quiet. The notion that this collection of flat-affect rocking might come to a climax is either stupid or just plain wishful thinking. But on “Palisades” the sound is all held notes and rumble, a gathering storm with no lightning in the forecast. A careful listen will reveal guitar melodies working almost subsonically beneath the wash of chords and tom-tommery, however. This music is anything if not layered and dense. But the density is gentle and pastel. As is the impact, at least on the surface.
What Burton is going for, of course, is not the usual rock ‘n’ roll litany of rebellion, anger, and sexuality. Early Day Miners works toward something sweeping and grand and subtle—the stuff of “ART” with a capital AAAAAA. If you take your rock with a heavy dose of vaguely-defined ambition, then you’ve found a favorite band. If you see rock as a kind of sonic poetry—perfect for a Soho gallery or a college lecture hall—then this is the motherlode.
Early Day Miners is impressively artful yet bracingly dull. Galvanizing but flat as a Midwestern plain.
Just your thing—or not.