It starts with a whisper: A heavily delayed guitar fills the sonic floor, swells and echoes and reverberates, and soon the room is filled with crashing, triumphant drums and double-tracked guitars aiming for the heavens. But just when you think the song is going to lift off into such a stratosphere, it cuts out, and is almost immediately replaced with a near-funk bassline and subtle drums. One soon ascertains, in the course of the next 43 minutes, that the utmost tenant of Red Sparowes 2.0 is to expect the unexpected.
The Fear Is Excruciating, But Therein Lies the Answer (*exhale*) is the Sparowes’ third full-length. It finds the Los Angeles band going bigger, more epic, and a bit more metal, which isn’t surprising given the gang’s ‘six degrees of post rock’ connections to sister groups like Halifax Pier and Isis. The crushing three-guitar lineup of Bryant Clifford Meyer, Emma Ruth Rundle and Andy Arahood means the layers here are piled high, very high, while the comfortable muscle of the Craig Burns/David Clifford rhythm section remains airtight and lethal, one of the best bass-and-drums duos in the post-rock game. But what really shines here is the new, welcome fullness of the production, courtesy of Melvins/Tool producer Toshi Kasai. This is Sparowes in widescreen, and it brings the band to a level previously unimaginable.
As for the songs themselves, there is precious little of the filler that has at times hampered past efforts by the group. The album starts strong, with the deep inhaled breath of “Truths Arise”, before moving swiftly into the turgid crunch of “In Illusions of Order”. It’s this second track that might seem the biggest departure from what we’ve heard before from the band, but there’s enough of the usual signifiers present to not alienate anyone too unduly. From there we move to the delicately beautiful (“A Hall of Bombs”, complete with some of the instrument that has long been the band’s secret weapon, Burns’ pedal steel); exultant triumph (“Giving Birth to Imagined Survivors”); sweeping, ominous doom (“A Swarm”, also starring the steel); and the album’s straight-up strongest tracks, “In Every Mind” and “A Mutiny”. While the Sparowes have seemingly abandoned their fixation on unwieldy, melodramatic song titles, in exchange they’ve upped the musical drama. While this sort of grand pomposity may weigh other bands of their pedigree down in webs of bleak pretension, here it sounds surefooted, effortless, and just awesome. The album manages to improve track by track, until you reach the best of them all at the terminus.
An eerie drone slowly rises in the distance over steadily-swelling static thunder, building and building relentlessly until the landscape is awash with multi-tracked guitars, all soaked with thick reverb and awash in a sea of cymbal-heavy, throbbing drums. This song, album closer “As Each End Looms and Subsides”, is the stuff that makes “post rock” the genre most often paired with “post apocalyptic” in the modern pop culture lexicon. It’s nothing new, but there are few bands out there who play the old crescendo-core game as well as this L.A. gang. It tops a fine collection that reveals the kind of production and songwriting progress that every band which treads water should aspire to.