[30 September 2007]
I haven’t seen the real The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly in the flesh. It’s a 180-piece sculpture of found objects covered in aluminum foil, and assembled into an intricate shrine of religious fervor. The life’s work of Washington, D.C. recluse James Hampton, it’s now installed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The religious and personal turmoil that fueled the sculpture’s dramatic intricacy is a convenient starting-point for a consideration of its namesake, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, Le Loup’s debut album.
Le Loup’s The Throne of the Third Heaven… doesn’t have the same obsessive sense of complete immersion in a personal ideology as the original artwork. But for a first artistic statement, it’s remarkably competent. With it’s layered variety this album assures us, at every turn, that we’re in the presence of a pretty remarkable new talent.
Le Loup, in the few months it has been gigging around Washington, D.C., has gained quite a reputation for its powerful live shows. There are seven band members, all of whom sing together, as well as saw and blow and strum and hit. You can imagine the kind of dramatic, Arcade Fire-esqe squall that a large group of energetic, orchestral-minded indie musicians can corral. I only mention that Montreal group because it’s become a touchstone for the live set, even though Le Loup sounds nothing like them.
It’s not even correct to say “Le Loup”, because the recordings on The Throne of the Third Heaven… were done before the band really formed. The band’s leader, Sam Simkoff, made the recordings in bedrooms and basements with a banjo, a computer and a crappy microphone. So though the group performs these songs together on stage, think of the album as a precursor. It’s the raw material and a promise of the kind of thing we could hope for from future releases.
Simkoff mentions broken Wilco, Sufjan Stevens, Animal Collective, Destroyer, Social Scene and other bands as influences on his music. The list goes on. It’s an indie-literate list, and oddly appropriate. Though Simkoff doesn’t have the songwriting sophistication of Dan Behar, yet, the second and third groups on the list are sure to come up in any review of Le Loup. Sufjan’s a given from the extended arrangement, the folk-song skeletons of the songs, and the extensive use of banjo. And Animal Collective is another obvious influence with the wailing vocals, thousand-layered sound, and an eagerness to mess with the sounds of instruments through electronics. It’s “For the Windows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” on acid.
It’s “Grass” without the shouting and general obtuseness. Actually, the group reminded me a fair bit of Annuals. Both groups are large, young, talented and not afraid to deviate in unexpected directions mid-song. You might also hear something of the Books, and even a Wolf Parade-esque howl now and again. One thing is, Simkoff even has an air of Stevens-ness about him—if not in looks, at least in their same studied, All-American earnestness.
The best songs here go beyond Sufjan Stevens’ orchestral folk-pop, even if they’re not as painstakingly detailed and evocative. “Outside of this Car! The End of the World!” rides a steady drum-machine beat with a syncopated pentatonic loop, adding a mirror-structured countermelody and building guitar crashes in a powerful canon. Throughout the album, interesting banjo lines mirror this kind of layered composition, creating a consistent compositional tone that’s remarkable for its consistency—even when the sounds employed on each song are so different.
“Breathing Rupture” reprises a strummed banjo introduction that is used throughout the disc, but this time Simkoff’s vocals connect into longer phrases, thrilling with poetic imagery beneath multi-tracked echoes. “Look To the West” fuelled by calm organ drones, highlights Simkoff’s oblique poetry: “Eyes full of sleep, and steady breaths pressed from chests/ … Look to the west, what colors grow there? / There, where bells and swells and storms gather”.
If Le Loup hadn’t to rely on preset-sounding bass notes and sometimes-tinny percussion this album could have been an of-the-year challenger. As it is, The Throne of the Third Heaven… is still plenty impressive. “We Are Gods! We Are Wolves!” the song that may be the band’s most widely known on the internet, is one of the more straight electronic tracks, building on shouting/howling vocal lines to a “Give your soul to us” chant. Take a listen; it’s Le Loup in top form. One can only imagine what the group sounds like now, with its live violins, brass and chorus of raised voices. If they can translate that to a record we’ll be faced with a very powerful album indeed.
The opening, conversational words of “Canto I” express uncertainty: “I wasn’t fully able to/ … experience the world at all/… and, like, … I don’t know”. But the truth is Le Loup is already pretty adept at enveloping the listeners in a coherent sonic world of their own. For a jumping-off point, this debut is a pretty remarkable achievement.