Dirge, the self-described 'neurotic post-core' band from France, may have gotten just a bit big for their britches. Ever since Blight and Vision Below a Faded Sun was released in 2000, Dirge have been pushing the limits of how much space they can cram into their music and get away with it. 2004's And the Sky Shall Descend saw this French outfit pushing the breadth of their style to as far as many listeners will willingly go, spanning the album over four 10-20 minute tracks. It was in 2007, however, with the release of Wings of Lead Over Dormant Seas that Dirge finally reached their limit. Though the first disc contained easily accessible music in comparison, the entire second disc was composed of one song, the title track. It was a full, sixty-minute opus of statically-charged noise that was so loosely structured and held together that a Sunn O))) album felt like it had more musical coherence and direction. And while both And the Sky Shall Descend and Wings of Lead Over Dormant Seas are excellent albums, they perhaps stretched Dirge's sound a bit too much for the comfort of most.
Accordingly, Elysian Magnetic Fields marks a return to the safer confines of traditional post-metal. Their noise-metal digressions are more withheld and restrained, and their pieces are generally much more straightforward, sticking within the safe seven-to-ten-minute average that is standard for the genre. It's still 'neurotic post-core,' sure, but light on the 'neurotic' and almost completely without the '-core.' In many ways, this makes the album a lot more accessible—not many folks have the patience to sit through an album of twenty-minute tracks, let alone one sixty-minute one. However, it was that exact experimentation that made Dirge such a compelling listen to me, not to mention giving the band some sense of difference from otherwise similar acts like Cult of Luna. And unfortunately, the loss of those risks put Elysian Magnetic Fields a bit in the red from the get-go.
However, a band doesn't have to continually release ever-expanding music in order to be good, and, thankfully, Elysian Magnetic Fields is a case where the restraint of musical experimentation doesn't mark a decline in the quality of music. Dirge's trademark cacophony of ambient noise and traditional post-metal are still present, and those elements are what really carry this work.
In many ways, the return to shorter, accessible song structures more traditional to post-metal has strengthened their songwriting. Pieces like “Falling” or “Obsidian” are long enough to be satisfying without musical chaff, and their longer ventures such as “Cocoon” or “Morphée Rouge” are engrossing without being needlessly drawn out. It's actually hard to find a single track on this album that feels weak; even the musical comma that is “Narconaut” feels complete and satisfying.
Praise should also be given to the fluidity of the sound on this album. The band plays so wistfully through odd time signatures that they go almost without recognition. The climax of “Apogee” plays with such emotion and power that it was only several listens in that I realized it was in 13/4. That same track is also probably the only instance where I'll ever go on record saying that an accordion was actually beneficial to the atmosphere of a piece, especially in this genre.
The brief moments when the band does indulge in its structureless droning, however, are all the more satisfying, if only for their sparseness on the album. “Elysian Magnetic Fields” begins with immense, crashing guitars that sound like cresting waves, and “Narconaut” creates a scene as cold and lonesome as drifting through empty space.
Is it an instant classic like Oceanic or Through Silver in Blood? It certainly has the musical strength to be. Simply put, Elysian Magnetic Fields is one of the most satisfying albums I have heard in a long time. On most days, I would argue that a return to more formulaic writing is the hallmark of a band in decline, but I just can't bring myself to find anything wrong with how this album was written. Even if the loss of overt experimentation that set Dirge apart from the pack is lamentable, good music is still good music, and strong writing is still strong writing, no matter how it is packaged.
9.0 / 10
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