Concept albums are a tricky proposition: sometimes awkward, often contrived, and always held captive by their chosen subject. Even the geekiest of music obsessives count their favorite concept albums on less than one hand.
Instrumental albums also face a set of constraints and potential pitfalls. To engage the listener, most post-rock ensembles rely on sounds that can be, at their best, lush, intense, and melodic, and, at their worst, bland and texture-less.
What, then, to make of an instrumental concept album?
The press release for The Exquisite Death of Saxon Shore claims that “through 10 songs, Saxon Shore explore the story of their own hypothetical death complete with a moment of silence to close the album.” Reading this, you may wonder, will I hear the Saxon Shore wailing in pain, raging loudly against an ever-encroaching tunnel of darkness? Or, possibly I’ll meditate on a gentle perishing, one last closing of the eyes? Is the music melancholy and droning, an anti-Prozac for rainy-day wallowing? Does Saxon Shore come to life, and then die, within this set of songs?
To answer the above, respectively: no, no, no and no.
Let’s kill the death analogy, then, as perhaps the band should have. We’ll instead ask: Are these original sounds, and do they breathe new life into the genre of post-rock?
Once again, no.
What is mostly heard are subtle re-hashings of the records which Saxon Shore must have on their shelves. “How We Conquered the Western World” borrows the sometime-iciness of Sigur Rųs, without adding any of their melodicism. “With A Red Suit You Will Become a Man” sounds like an electronicized take of a Lanterna song. “Marked with the Knowledge” has a piercing guitar lead that is twittering and helplessly reminiscent of Explosions in the Sky.
There are lively moments to be found. The disc-opening “The Revolution Will Be Streaming” has all the anthem-like qualities that make this genre addictive and worthy of replay. The song chimes and builds, and is at turns dark and mechanical, bright and bursting. It grabs attention without attention-grabbing lyrics. This elasticity and originality will generate enough intrigue to entice most listeners to follow the life of the album. Nine songs later, “The Lame Shall Enter First” closes the album (excepting the aforementioned gratuitous moment of silence) and carries intensity in moderation throughout its five-minute lifespan. We are left to assume that the screams buried low in the mix do, in fact, represent the perishing of Saxon Shore. It is the songs in between that don’t live up to the promise of The Exquisite Death of Saxon Shore.
The guitar is Saxon Shore’s standard emotive instrument, while booming drums offer building crescendos and subtle electronic flourishes aim to evoke lushness and intensity. Esteemed engineer, producer, and mixer Dave Fridmann does his best to make this palette vibrant. But the compositions are largely mid-tempo, often plodding, and never achieve a grand thundering or a sweeping melancholy. There aren’t enough risks, detonations, and variations within the textures of these songs.
The death motif perhaps arises from Saxon Shore’s recent line-up change. The band’s rhythm section departed in 2004, and founder Matt Doty questioned disposing of the band altogether. This album aims to bring forth a new collaborative effort and the “rebirth” of the Saxon Shore. Unfortunately, however, The Exquisite Death of Saxon Shore is ultimately lifeless.