What draws people to “eerie” music? For anyone who might use the word “creepy” derisively, there are at least as many others who would substitute more endearing terms to describe the same effect: “haunting”, “spectral”, “mysterious”. Many of us enjoy the sense of connection to something ineffable, uncanny, even powerful that dark music can sometimes bring. It’s an easy thing to mess up as well: take too many obvious shortcuts, and you’ve got yourself a Halloween costume instead of a genuine sense of otherworldliness.
I was surprised to find that Ross Tones’ description of Embers, his latest project as Throwing Snow, makes no mention of witchcraft, séances, the occult, or anything else along those lines. Listening to the record, one gets the sense that the album is squarely aimed at evoking gothic, spooky vibes. It is odd then to visit his Bandcamp page and find that it is in fact supposed to be about the “laws and patterns of the natural world”. True, the record is clearly cyclical, starting and ending with the sound of literal crackling embers with each track in between flowing seamlessly into the next. Other than some additional bird and rain samples, however, that’s about where Tones’ mission statement for the album stops resonating with the end result. Embers sounds far too constricted and forced, effectively and musically, to sound like a meditation on the natural world. Instead, its hour-long runtime is packed with a somber, self-conscious ghoulishness that makes it something of a slog to get through, albeit one with occasional high points.
Especially during its first half, Embers follows a pattern where lengthy stretches of subdued, looped ambiance and gently plucked Medieval strings eventually give way to a heavier beat. Once the gentle ominousness of “Cantor’s Dust, Pt. 1” transitions into the lurching, oozing, bass-heavy drop of part two, the framework for the rest of the album has more or less been set. That said, these moments of punctuation provide some of the album’s highlights, and Embers is at its best when it features a strong backbone of some kind. Tones has a knack for choosing compelling beats, drawing on Burial-esque rawness on “Ruins”, war drums on “Klaxon”, and syncopated rhythms on both sections of “Prism”.
Still, the predictable formula by which these highlights arrive quickly grows tiresome. One comes to expect each variation in the aural landscape, and the moments start to lose their impact. The within-track repetition is rarely rewarding either, coming across less as disciplined meditation and more like compulsiveness, circling in an unsatisfying loop as on “Cosms” and “Recursion”. Every so often, the elemental components of a particular track arrange themselves in just such a way that the formula comes back to life, as on the finale “Tesseract”, which employs a thick, doomy, cobweb-laden keyboard riff over a commanding beat. Rather than accumulating meaning over the course of the album, however, the tracks making up Embers largely drag one another down through their gloomy uniformity, blunting the force of their strongest moments.
For many albums, one hour is perfectly acceptable, but on Embers the material proves far too inert and stationary to justify such a length. Its lofty conceptual ambitions rarely translate effectively. The “natural world” that inspired the album is a complex, multifarious place, by turns graceful yet messy, unforgiving yet impartial, but Throwing Snow’s latest does not do justice to those environmental paradoxes. Instead, he hones in rigidly on a narrow conception of darkness and foreboding that grows stale. This rigidity gives the album a closed-off feel that ultimately constricts the flow of emotion and makes for a cumbersome listen.
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