I think I can tell you the exact moment my perception of music changed. It was a complete Gestalt switch, an utter reconception of the possibilities that lay open to the artists I enjoyed so much. Several artists had widened my view and primed me for this change--hearing the pulverizing waves of Isis, the mathematical crunches of Meshuggah, the vast soundscapes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor for the first time had done a lot to jar my sense of contentment and present me with vastly new musical ideas. However, there is exactly one artist that has shaken my view of music so thoroughly, so completely that I knew upon finishing their masterpiece that no music I listened to after this would be the same.
In 2001, a little Bostonian band called maudlin of the Well released a pair of companion albums, one titled simply Bath and the other Leaving Your Body Map. Together, each of these albums created a 122 minute piece of music so stunningly beautiful that I firmly believe it remains unparalleled today. If you asked me to name a piece of music that I found to be so perfect as to be beyond reasonable reproach, I would have to name these albums.
What primarily prevents them from being more widely known is how few copies of them actually exist. Though this problem has been somewhat alleviated thanks to online mp3 stores like iTunes and Amazon, finding a physical copy of these albums, on CD or on vinyl, is an expensive and near futile endeavour in itself. And just leave alone trying to find a copy that's new; though the pair of albums get reissued on different labels every once in a blue moon, the print runs are always small, and they are always sold out within a moment's notice. I actually had to kill a man to get both of these albums, new and on vinyl, when Antithetic and Blood Music reissued them in 2012.
At this point, you're either wondering what this masterpiece sounds like or asking yourself when I'm going to stop salivating all over my keyboard. If I could somehow evoke the entirety of these two albums in one word, it would be "contrast": everything about these albums is designed to encompass as wide a variety of sounds and influences as possible, even when they appear to be completely opposite to one another. While most noticeable is the obvious juxtaposition of death metal and soft acoustic pieces, the albums hide in many more subtle contrasts, such as how the incredibly dark lyrics are sung in such soft and impassioned melodicism. Even the cover art of the two albums seems mismatched for their titles.
And the first piece on Bath exemplifies this paradigm, acting as an exemplar for the rest of the albums. "The Blue Ghost / Shedding Qliphoth" begins very unassumingly as with a soft acoustic guitar piece, so light and delicate you worry it will crumble under its own fragility. But it slowly begins to build itself up, with saxophones and other instruments eventually joining in and moving the piece forward through a relaxing jazzy ambiance. And as the piece finally reaches its crescendo, the full band now playing together, you can just hear the faint hints of the heaviness to follow.
All illusions of softness that may have remained are shattered as soon as the second track begins. "They Aren't All Beautiful" is a nasty thrash-metal piece replete with bellowing guitars, blasting bass drums, and bellowing death growls, and as it goes on, the growls slowly become agonized screams, giving the entire song a sense of desperation and despair. "Heaven and Weak" provides an even sharper contrast with its incredibly soft melancholy, barely audible drumming dancing around it in the background.
The first of four interludes plays next. Each of the four interludes details a different facet of the band's sound and, as opposed to the highly avant-garde construction of the pieces around them, are very straightforward and simply constructed. This one features the guitar in a light jazzy solo, providing a brief respite from the obtuseness around it.
"The Ferryman" jarringly returns to form with loud, crushing organs playing the introductory theme. Percussion then floats the piece forward, the doom metal vocals and screaming trading off with each other. The female vocals do eventually bring some melodic elements to the piece, but without resolving to any satisfactory tonality, and the disquieting unease is only exacerbated as the backing becomes hauntingly gothic-inspired. The piece ends as ominously as it began, with nothing but the dripping sounds of water and extremely frightening distant moaning that draws ever closer.
As the soulful moaning and screaming fades out, the bath sounds play us into the next song, "Marid's Gift of Art". This is a very melodic and peaceful folk-inspired guitar and vocal piece, the strings and trumpet providing some moderate backing. The entire latter half is a tear-jerkingly beautiful acoustic guitar duet, one of the most moving parts on either album. This is followed by my personal favourite track, "Girl With a Watering Can". That piece begins with a clarinet reprise of the theme from "The Blue Ghost / Shedding Qliphoth" before Fountoulakis's vocals take over the leads again, beautifully stirring and moving with their delicacy. These lead us into the first actual guitar solo of the album and again my favourite, measured perfectly with one half technicality and one half moving melody.
The epic "Birth Pains of Astral Projection" comes next, starting off with soft acoustic doodles that form into a light, Latin-influenced passage, emphasized perfectly with a seductive saxophone solo. The piece slowly morphs into an organ-based passage before the harsh vocals are introduced, growls and screams playing off of each other. They eventually resolve after a post-metal like build up into the heaviest moment yet, sleigh bells chiming mockingly in the background. The piece finally softens up a little to let the more pensive vocals shine through, leading into another fantastic guitar solo to round out the piece, segueing directly into the second interlude. This one is the oddest of the bunch, featuring an acoustic guitar and piano jig over a percussive backing created by precisely timed water splashes, adding just a touch of innocence to the all-too-real darkness surrounding it.
"Geography" plays the album out, and in an album as immersed in its own desperate introspection as this, calling this the most melancholy moment on the album means something. The bittersweet melodic build and vocal delivery longing equally as the lyrics together create the most emotionally moving moment on the entire album, a fitting end to the first hour of this immense piece of music.
(This tractate continues in my review of Leaving Your Body Map)
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