The Pirate Ship Quintet Reconcile the Gloom and Hope of Post-Rock

Photo: Jane Watson / Denovali Records

On Emitter, UK instrumental ensemble the Pirate Ship Quintet dive deeper into the textures and sensibilities that define their beautifully melancholy sound.

The Pirate Ship Quintet


29 March 2019

The Pirate Ship Quintet live in the same moody, ethereal instrumental universe as post-rock ensembles Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky. Unlike the occasional chaotic bombast of their instrumental brethren, the Pirate Ship Quintet finds value in understated and perpetually moody textures. As an ensemble, they understand the value of silence as much as noise. Emitter, their third proper release, finds the group expanding beyond typical song structures and branching out into more fantastic, near-fever dream sonic escapades.

The gloom and ambiance of opening track "First" is a bare-bones prelude that hints at the emotive depths to come. Simple yet effective, it flows right into the nearly 17-minute "Companion", a dense and epic journey of haunting wordless vocals and soaring cello melodies. Coming from a classical pedigree, cellist Sandy Bartai's sensitive touch deftly glides amidst moments of sorrow and rage. Putting the longest track on the record second in the lineup is a bold move, but "Companion" is a bold track itself. It builds between its emotive peaks and valleys with a natural grace and fluidity.

Electric guitar and cello serve as the band's primary instrumental textures, the obvious fusion of the group's classical and rock influences. By itself, this isn't new–GY!BE and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra have done this for years–but Pirate Ship Quintet deserves credit for how well they exploit each instrument's timbre and character. At times the modern boldness of the electric guitar overshadow the cello's naked acoustic quality; at others, the cello's soaring moans and shrieks make the unadorned guitar seem downright tender and fragile. It's a testament to the ensemble that they value color and impact as much as notes and rhythms.

Title track "Emitter" is another extended affair that introduces the hypnotic incantations of saxophonist Andrew Hayes. This new instrument adds a crucial sonic element to the record, a special vocal quality that infuses a sense of humanity to break up the perpetual gloom on the album so far. Respect is also due to drummer Jonathan Sturgess; "Emitter" gives him moments to pair jumping syncopations to his steady rhythmic drive. When the distorted guitar kicks in around the nine-minute mark it feels earned; the track has ebbed and flowed between hope and despair, and this sudden burst of angst leads the tune towards its cathartic conclusion.

The album's striking aesthetic, however, begets its predictability. Odd number tracks are named after their set order–"First", "Third", "Fifth", etc.–each one acting as sort of a short prelude for the longer song to follow. Likewise, the sonic impact of reverb-soaked arpeggiated guitars transitions from a bold calling card to something of a trope as the album progresses track by track. It's still effective in setting a melancholic mood, but the electric guitar can do so much more. The Pirate Ship Quintet is fantastic at crafting melodies and atmospheres–expanding on their sonic pallet would add so much more to this already fantastic group.

That's not to say the album grows stale. "Wreath" and "Symmetry Is Dead" are beautiful and contemplative evocations. The return of wordless vocals in the background are at once haunting and soothing. Taken as a whole, Emitter is an inspiring record that demonstrates how modern instrumental music can provoke ideas and emotions far better than words can convey.


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