[30 July 2013]
Crafting an album that’s incredibly cohesive in sound, to the point of monotony even, is always a risky thing to do. Some careful balancing needs to be done or what could have been a brilliantly consistent album that keeps its atmosphere up throughout can turn out to be a slow drive through ever-similar fields which all blend together into a musical gray blob. The tiniest little detail or the way you arrange those details can matter and be the crucial factor between success and failure. Sometimes it’s downright confusing why something succeeds where another album of similar kind doesn’t: sometimes things just fall into place and click.
A Quiet Darkness clicks. For its entire duration, Houses’ second album barely strays away from its grand goal of delivering softly overwhelming sound waves. Here and there, the occasional song lifts off the tempo minimally, and some moments sound more awake and active than most of the others. But for the vast majority of its duration, and even for most of the duration of the songs that sound a little bit different, it’s all hazy electronic soundscapes that are a little bit too active to call ambient but a little bit not active enough to really call synth pop either; sometimes coming across like an insomniac bastard child of the Postal Service and Faunts. Conceptually, the album is meant to be a post-apocalyptic love story, a tale of two people apart in need of reuniting, and Houses are very particular about the fact that this story has one particular mood and sound and that they’re going to drive it into you.
If it sounds like a recipe for monotony, you’d be right. But things fall right into place with A Quiet Darkness and it turns out to be a captivating and an enchanting listen. There’s serenity to its melancholy and a glimmer of hope in its downbeat nature. The elements it has been built with are strong. While Dexter Tortoriello and Megan Messina aren’t creating anything particularly new here – even their vocals are almost archetypical representations of the vocals you’d come to associate with this kind of music, where his is weary and contemplative and hers is graceful and ethereal – they’re nonetheless creating something special. The potential monotony of the sound isn’t bothersome in the slightest: the approach here isn’t to create hook-driven individual moments but a strong unity, which is not only succeeded in but each song approaches the desired atmosphere in its own way. “Peasants” intensifies it, making it the sole point of the album that comes close (and yet still far away) to something you could call explosive, “The Beauty Surrounds” sets it to soar peacefully, “Tenderly” makes into an elegy, and so on. The title track that closes the album sounds both like a sweet lullaby and a knowingly final farewell, a closing credits call set to an emotional resolution the rest of the album has been building up to.
I have only mentioned the album’s much-touted concept briefly, and that’s because there is very little reason to talk about it. It exists and you can follow a certain kind of story through careful observation of the lyrics, but the album never sounds like the general idea of its concept. Rather, it’s the title of the album itself that the music seems to take to. These are songs that exist to calmly fill a void in a quiet darkness, sounding both dreamy and spacey and embodying the meaning behind the title’s words to an ideal degree. Another twist of fate might have given it the same destiny that countless other albums of this kind have to endure, where their supposed atmospheric qualities turn out to be pretty but meaningless background filler. A Quiet Darkness, however, has meaning and quality to it. It’s a few steps away from hitting major highs, but it does the most important thing for an album of its kind: it falls together and clicks into place.