You just don’t see bands like this anymore. The whole shoegazing, atmospheric, easy-listening-gothic darkwavy movement has all but disappeared into the night, morphing neatly and quietly into the less laboriously-described genres of folk, rock, and ambient music. In the ‘90s you could hardly throw a stone without pelting one of these bands in the forehead. Dead Can Dance is largely responsible for the germination of the genre, though it was really Enigma who had the most to do with introducing the masses to this sort of music, despite the fact that Enigma doesn’t quite fit into the mold that we’re talking about here. After riding a short-lived wave of countless compilations and soundtrack appearances, the genre all but deflated thanks to Delerium’s “Silence”; after all, once you’ve thrown Sarah McLachlan on top of a mid-tempo dance beat alongside copious Gregorian chants, what’s left for you to do?
Love Spirals Downwards always tended a little more toward the “artistic” side of the spectrum of acts in this style. Rather than find the dance beat that would hook the Love Spirals Downwards name into the mainstream, primary instrumentalist Ryan Lum went for a more minimalist approach, more akin to the lighter side of such darkwave stalwarts as Cocteau Twins, Love is Colder than Death and Projekt labelmate Black Tape for a Blue Girl. There was always just enough percussion to push a song along, and even then, only when that percussion was necessary. Suzanne Perry took a plaintive approach to the Lisa Gerrard-esque habit of nonsense syllables mixed with the occasional intelligible lyric, coming off as ethereal, yet human. Combined, the two made some of the prettiest, if not necessarily the most engaging music in the genre. The year 2007 saw the re-release of their first two albums, Idylls and Ardor.
In hindsight, only the latter was truly necessary.
Idylls was a spotty, getting-the-feet-wet sort of release that never quite carried the consistency or the emotional weight that an album in this style needs, and a fresh coat of paint via remastering only highlights its deficiencies. Something like “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, for all of the Shakespearean invocations of its title, sounds like barely a thought of a song. Lum’s guitar strums quietly, Perry sings about ladayah and behdeyo and it’s sort of pretty, but it never reaches climax, instead opting to unexpectedly fade out after a mere two and a half minutes. The beat and minor key string synths of “Dead Language” are appropriately intense, but the multi-tracking of Perry’s vocals reveals an unforgivable sin in this sort of music: she’s out of tune. Perhaps it’s intentionally abrasive, or perhaps it’s trying to evoke the quarter tones of the Middle Eastern music being emulated here, but Love Spirals Downwards never gave the impression of trying to be intentionally abrasive, and mostly it just sounds flat. Mostly, the album is pretty enough, but not so much so as to compensate for missteps like those previously described.
Still, there are three bonus tracks to be found here, so those who loved the album to begin with are likely in for a treat. A “live” take (with no audience noise to speak of) of “Scatter January” is beautiful and studio quality, while the version of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” taken from an early-‘90s compilation is very much what the album version should have been, with an extended coda featuring some beautiful, clean electric guitar work and further vocals. Interestingly enough, the three bonus tracks on Idylls quite outshine the album proper.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with “Mediterranea”, the lone new studio track, a song that might have fit in quite well with the songs of Ardor. Ardor, then, is the album on which Love Spirals Downwards found its sound, a mix of gently strummed guitars and Perry’s medieval-leaning vocal stylings that just seem to mesh together. It’s a sound that the duo went and refined further for two albums following Ardor (even landing a background music spot on Dawson’s Creek), but one would be hard-pressed to say that they ever made anything more affecting than the best moments of Ardor.
Much like Idylls, much of Ardor blends together in its prettiness and the ephemeral nature of its impact, but unlike the previous album, the highlights are positive ones. Opener “Will You Fade” starts off pretty and turns into something great via a latter half that features a wash of shoegazing guitars and soaring vocal lines. The lovely “Write in Water” (represented also as another “live” bonus track) is utterly gorgeous, and basically serves as the template for every song of its type that would appear for the rest of the decade. Love Spirals Downwards’ first attempt at recording with a guest artist is here as well, as Jennifer Wilde’s performances on “Depression Glass” and “Sunset Bell” suggest that the duo might even be better with a more direct, less floaty sound from the vocals.
The bonuses on Ardor are nearly as strong as those on Idylls, though the “Instrumental Mix” of “I Could Find It” is a bit disposable when held up next to the original. Even if the bonus material isn’t quite so surprising, however, it’s Ardor that should really get the attention when examining this pair of albums. Despite the fact that Lum and Perry might not have had the success of a few of their contemporaries, Ardor is proof enough that they had plenty to offer, with moments on par with the best the genre has to offer. Idylls, for its part, is best left as a study piece, in which we can see the origins of Ardor‘s beautiful sound.
Idylls (Remastered Reissue)
- Multiple Songs MySpace