Wrekmeister Harmonies' impressive new record, Light Falls, pairs down the number of guests and creates a central band, a smaller group on which to build a new kind of composition.
On Night of Your Ascension, the excellent 2015 record from Wrekmeister Harmonies, JR Robinson and Esther Shaw—the core of the group—enlisted roughly 30 musicians from all corners of the musical landscape to make an epic record. It still plays like something at times soaring and at times impossibly heavy, a record with extremes that can't be outdone.
So Robinson and Shaw don't try to top that record on their new LP, Light Falls. Instead, they tried a new approach. This record pairs the guests down and creates a central band, a smaller group on which to build a new kind of composition. Ryley Walker and Cave's Cooper Crain make guest spots, but the album centers around the main players: Robinson and Shaw, joined by Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Thierry Amar, as well as Sophie Trudeau and Timothy Herzog.
Though the number of players is paired down, there's still an impressive size to Light Falls, and the compositions retain the patience and intricacy that made Night of Your Ascension so unique. The album begins with the gauzy, almost pastoral strum of acoustic guitars and keyboards on "Light Falls I: The Mantra". A voice whispers darkly, "Stay in, go out, get sick, get well" again and again, the repetition more haunting with each pass. Robinson has suggested that the title is a reference to sunset (how light fades by degrees and then—all of a sudden— it's just gone). This first movement shows well that ever-slowly fading light, but at the edges you can feel the stillness of the dark to come, the worry or isolation it might bring.
"Light Falls II: The Light Burns Us All'' brings the band in with full force, Amar's bass and Herzog's drums bringing that darkness to life with a stomping, stalking kind of muscle. Shaw's keyboards still float on the outside of the song, but they don't stretch out so much as they fog-up each note. Robinson's guitar is distorted and low, but the notes also feel smudged somehow, both sound and the memory of sound, some mix of the moment (darkness) and whatever brought us here (the fading light). The movement is a loud but slow burn, so insistent on its steady structure and pace that you almost get lost in it; that is, until it yields to the beautiful quiet and space of "The Light Falls III: Light Sick", where Trudeau's piano chords echo outward, each one rippling over the notes that came before.
Light Falls shifts back and forth between quiet and loud, between stillness and propulsion, between nascent brightness and overpowering darkness. But these don't feel like poles opposing each other; rather, the real feat of this record is how the quiet informs the loud and vice versa. "The Gathering" builds on violin and piano, with some distant echoing guitar, but when the band bursts the song open with crashing drums and wailing guitars, it doesn't blot out those clearer sounds. Instead, the piano and strings still shine through, playing right along with the murky noise, making both the distorted and the clear similarly beautiful.
This back and forth, this bleeding of one moment into the other, also creates a sort of surprise in listening to this record. For other bands, the combination of classical elements, folk compositions, and heavy rock elements would be a ticket to blow out into impossibly expansive tracks. Not so with Light Falls. The strings and keys don't drift away into atmospherics. They roil and twist and constrict around the guitar-bass-drum center. So along with the back and forth, there's an ever-growing, incredibly patient sort of tension, a ramping up that you may not notice until Robinson begins his constrained howl on the blistering "Some Were Saved Some Were Drowned". It's a final snap, the moment at which the string has been pulled too taut, so it must break. All these dark and bright sounds conspire in that moment while Robinson yells, transforming frustration into catharsis.
The album ends quietly, with a voice calling into the void, almost whispering to a son. "Where have you gone, where have you gone?" the voice repeats, left to square with time passing, with being left alone, with regret. It's a bittersweet but hard-earned end to Light Falls. Though the album is cut into seven tracks, it is best taken as a whole composition. It's every bit as volatile as Night of Your Ascension, every bit as cohesive, but there's a new sort of energy here, a space for the listener to connect to the players, rather than bathing in endless layers of sound. The resulting album is an impressive one, dark but not oppressive, expansive despite its leanness, and an excellent new turn for Wrekmeister Harmonies.