[8 August 2005]
It’s become something of a catch-all clichê to describe a piece of electronic music as “organic”—oh, it’s electronic music that sounds slightly less robotic than house? How organic! Given that caveat, however, it’s nearly impossible to keep from falling into such a trap when listening to Felix Laband’s third and latest full-length work, Dark Days Exit. You see, aside from the fact that most of the sounds on Dark Days Exit could only be created via electronic means, the album has so little in common with most of the electronic scene as to be completely uncategorizable in terms past the word “electronic”. Not since the golden age of Orbital has a mostly computer-generated album created and lived in its own world like this one does, and it’s a privilege to hear as gifted an artist as Laband work so obviously in his own element.
The cover art for Dark Days Exit features prominent, photorealistic, oversized skulls on a couple of different figures, mostly silhouettes, something that would appear to be an odd choice of imagery for an album as unabashedly pleasant as this one. Let it be known that not a single minute of the 66 that Dark Days Exit encompasses will repel your friends and neighbors. Still, the skulls serve to underscore the darkness that the entire album skirts around, content to only incorporate that darkness when Laband feels it absolutely necessary. Touches like those in opener “Whistling in Tongues” are common, touches that counter seven minutes of building pleasantries, whistle-synths and stereo tricks, acoustic guitars and off-kilter beats, with a child’s vocal sample, pushed to the front of the mix: “Die tonight. I can feel it. I don’t want to die tonight.” It’s at this point that the listener notices the menace in the bass line that’s been building over the course of an entire minute and a half, even as it seems to have come from nowhere.
There are signs of the darkness. There are always signs. The question is whether we choose to see them.
There’s “Sleeping Household”, which, as its name might indicate, is one of the more peaceful tunes on the album. Even so, there’s one sound effect, a whistle that sounds like a slightly more ghostly Theremin that plays these lovely melodies in the background, melodies as easily ignored as they are enjoyed. Anyone who’s read their fair share of ghost stories knows, however, that one absolutely cannot take even the most benevolent ghosts for granted—the song undergoes another subtle shift, and we’re back into foreboding suspense, highlighted by dissonant, picked sevenths in the guitar line. The pseudo-Theremin, meanwhile, has gone from pretty to melancholy, playing ascending minor-key scales to chilling effect. “Red Handed” is a relaxing way to spend eight minutes, but relaxing in the way lying in the sun on a 110-degree day is relaxing. And then, having hinted at the darkness for so long, the album finally revels in it for the entirety of a single track: “Black Shoes”. Ghostly clarinets, insistent pianos, and what may be the only adult voice on the album are no match for the purveyor of the most sinister of the melodies: the accordion.
That’s right, there’s an accordion here. It won’t even make you laugh—its integration into the grand scheme of this album is utterly seamless.
After the dark (though still quiet and by no means abrasive) climax of “Black Shoes”, there is plenty of pleasant material to lead out of the album. “Radio Right Now” is particularly inspired, its closest compositional comparison resting somewhere between Debussy and Steve Reich. Combined with “Minka (And the Notes After)”, it’s a final stretch that underscores the menace in what came before it by means of countering it.
It’s hard to tell whether “menace” was one of the emotions that Laband was going for in the three years he spent making Dark Days Exit—that cover art may point to “yes”, but the expression of it in the music is so subtle as to often be unnoticeable. Still, the active listener will notice it, and it is that subtlety, combined with Laband’s organic (no, I couldn’t help it) approach to electronic composition, that makes Dark Days Exit such a treasure. This is not the sort of album that will blow you away—parts get a bit long, and the tempo never gets above the middle ground. Rather, it will ingrain itself into your psyche until you have no choice but to listen to it over, and over, and over again. Every time, it will be worth hearing.