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Landing: Passages Through

David Antrobus


Passages Through

Label: K
US Release Date: 2003-06-03
UK Release Date: 2003-07-21

Pretend you didn't just click the little thumbnail jpeg link on the left side of the PopMatters home page. Imagine you didn't read the above release information, either (bear with me, this should be fun, or at the very least, illuminating). Now try to name the band I'm reviewing here, given only the following:

* They are a spacey, minimalist, slowcore American indie pop-rock group along the lines of Spacemen 3 and Slowdive.

* They are formed around a husband-and-wife nucleus.

* They belong to the Mormon faith; yet don't use their music to proselytize (at least overtly).

* Their single-word name begins with the letter L, and refers to something flat and horizontal.

Hands up how many of you would have come up with "Low", without hesitation? Under similar circumstances, I know I would have.

The thing is, popular music (perhaps all music) thrives on mimicry and appropriation, and whole (sub)genres have bootstrapped and consequently slingshot themselves out from the dizzying orbit of one single amazing album, a startlingly different song, or merely some singularly new sound. That Landing owe a debt to Low would neither be here nor there, just as long as the former brought something uniquely theirs, some aural fingerprint or DNA pattern, to the familiar altar of the latter's moody, spacious, and ritualistic beauty. Which leaves the stark question somewhat isolated: do they manage this difficult feat -- namely, balancing such flattering imitations (adaptations) with enough of their own character and nuance -- while simultaneously justifying their musical existence in a crowded, bustling indie ecosystem? Can the pop-rock biosphere support two near-identical specialists?

Sadly, I'd have to answer with a qualified "no". Landing will always come off second best in any comparison with Low, making it especially crucial that they move away from such a unique niche and forge something different. The good news is that, to this end, they certainly appear capable. Which is where Passages Through comes in.

These eight songs deliver a surprisingly varied sonic manifesto. Three distinct threads are evident: s(Low)/sad core dreamscapes, ambient soporific dronerock, and an oddly jarring folk/spacerock hybrid. It could well be the latter in which Landing might forge something unique, or at least distinct.

"Hold Me Under" illustrates the dilemma well. A picked acoustic guitar foundation throughout gives the impression of a folk song unnecessarily burdened by influences superimposed almost as an afterthought, with Aaron Snow's circumspect, melodic vocals ultimately suffering in any comparison with Low's Allen Sparhawk, despite superficial similarities. Consequently, a promising song loses its way. (Similarly, "Wrapped up in Flight" is inconsequential, dull, even less successful than "Hold Me Under".)

With "It Is Shining", Landing temporarily escape the gravitational tug of their immediate peers, those folk-fingered acoustic guitar strings hiding (then revealing) a more complex, layered genealogy, with occasional echoes of early Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil eventually bleeding through.

Opener "Wings of Light" is an example of the middle option: embryonic ambience increasingly at odds with an initially predictable melody. Adrienne Snow's sheer shawl of a voice is draped casually over gleaming guitar and shimmering layers of keyboards. Early structure gives way to unexpected looseness, and it feels like a relief. A vista of spare golden sound opens up, sunbeams in a dripping rainforest, avid greenery slowly fading to uniform twilit dimness in nine minutes of minimalist letting go, like the first stunned breath after a near drowning.

Equally ambient is "Close your Eyes, Slowly", yet also lurking here is a wide-eyed echo of U2's first Eno-inspired experiments, an unforgettable spark of harmonic, ringing, call-and-answer echo and delay, suggestive of earnest, open vistas, as if we had never been visited by those sad twins -- Irony and Cynicism -- in the intervening years. The yearning and hope are palpable.

The exception that proves the rule, perhaps, is "To See You". Featuring a gorgeous guitar intro, followed by male/female vocal harmonies as close to Alan and Mimi as any I've heard this side of Chair Kickers Union, this song is heart-grabbing from the opening bars, and never really relents with that humid sleepless small-hours quietly celebratory sadness. Somewhere in the distance, either elves or angels die slowly, refusing to overstay their welcome, as unnerving touches of ambient dissonance open up just when you think the song might end in predictably comfortable melancholy.

Yet "Breathing" is probably the crowning moment of Passages Through. The layers and textures shimmer most contrastingly here, bright dewdrops glistening on waxy dark leaves. Adrienne's voice paints a mere suggestion of anticipatory physicality ("I know it's coming / I know/ I feel its breathing / On the back of my neck / Eyes closing / While standing still / My heart's pounding"), but once the guitars sustain and begin to build on their lush echoing shimmer, we are transported somewhere otherworldly and strange, held loosely within the blurry confines of a sonic swaying hammock not entirely designed for somnolent ease. Something anxious flickers at the margins, storms enact their tantrums faraway, shimmering like heat mirages.

Sure, there are plenty of positives here. The problem with Landing is not in the mimicry -- popular music, after all, often demands appropriation and reconstruction -- but in the apparent yearning toward territory held exclusively by one near-peerless act. Low are unique. Landing, with their grasp of dynamics and sonic space, could yet move away from that limited (albeit astounding) template. After all, however striking the faux-ocular defensive stare of a swallowtail butterfly, those painted "eyes" can never match the precision 3-D avidity (or beauty) of a genuine flesh-and-feather night owl. Tempting as it is, really, why try (since one is a predator and one is, well, prey)?

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