Big guitars, big drama
Siberian emerged in Seattle about three years ago, on the strength of a samizdat cassette demo, four songs long, and followed early this year by a more polished six song EP, Hey Celestial. “Paper Birds”, the strongest song from With Me, the debut full-length, also appeared on the EP, but the rest is entirely new material, indicating a band that has, at a fairly early stage of their development, found a cohesive, consistent, compelling sound.
That sound is heavily influenced by the shoe-gazers’ love of layered, pedal-altered guitars, as well as the emotional directness and dynamic variety of American emo. You can hear little bits of U2 anthemic-ness, Smiths-ish mope lyrics and post-rock-ish tempo and time signature shifts. And yet, it’s also rather distinctive, relying on chiming, shivering walls of distortion, plaintive vocals and pounding drum beats. They sound a great deal like the Scottish band the Twilight Sad, though perhaps without the scathing self-scrutiny that tempers their grandiosity. This is guitar music that aspires to large scale and—even on a small budget—mostly achieves it, without any concessions to self-doubt or irony.
The best of these songs is “Paper Birds”, its guitar line spiraling out of a buzz of distortion, its beat pushing forward and pulling back at the same time. There’s a sinuous, snaky quality to the verse, the guitar undulating in an eighth-note pattern, the bass pulsing ominously, as the drums provide a back-slanting rhythm. Singer Finn Parnell is almost speaking the lines, here, spitting them. It is about as unlyrical as a guitar pop song can be. But hold on for it; there’s a really luminous—almost radioactively glowing—guitar slide, and you’re in the chorus. This section of the song, joined somehow, but entirely different from what’s come so far, is as flowery and harmonic and doomedly romantic as any Joy Division song. There’s a flutter in Parnell’s voice, a massed march of guitar chords, an indefinable upward loft to the chorus.
Of the remaining songs, “Wolf and Crane” is almost as good, the minimally-arranged verse backed mostly by thud of bass and drums, the chorus a dense thicket of sustained guitars. The loud-soft, aggressive-sensitive, sparse-annihilating dynamic has, of course, been done before. It can be a cliché. Yet when done well, and linked effectively by a singer who can find the rock in the soft parts and pathos in the loud ones, it is a very good thing indeed.
Dynamic drama is the key to Siberian’s success, but also, over extended listening, its downfall. It’s the sort of device that works best in modest doses; over a full album’s length it starts to feel bombastic. Too many crescendos is a little like the boy who cried wolf. After a while, you just don’t believe them any more. Still, it’s a good start album, with mostly solid songs and one or two genuine keepers (“Paper Birds” and “Wolf and Crane”). Siberian’s definitely a band to keep an eye on.
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// Notes from the Road
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