In a past life – OK, like eight years ago - I found myself working at a furniture factory in small town Pennsylvania. While I've found worse methods of employment from time to time, this job was, to put it mildly, not an ideal use of my time and talents, revolving around strenuous manual labor and a generally mind-numbing work experience. One of the more “interesting” aspects of the job was dealing with a revolving door of questionably-qualified personnel who somehow managed to get hired by the place: one self-proclaimed intellectual decided one day to clean desktops with WD-40, while another, a military-certified submarine helmsman, claimed to be able to drive a forklift – then within minutes, proceeded to crash into a stack of four-drawer dressers.
For all the comic relief characters I came in contact with however, there were a few people who stood out from the crowd. One of these was a college student named Matthew Serra, who my sister had at one point dated. I found this point rather amusing, but was more struck by the conversations about music and life as a whole that the two of us engaged in when we weren't slinging furniture into trailers. In late 2015, I caught wind that Matthew had, under the name of Moñecho, released an album recorded in his bedroom over the course of three years. Needless to say, I was immediately intrigued to find out what it sounded like, but I'm not sure I would have predicted that said album, consisting of two lengthy tracks broken down into ten parts and entitled Past Waters/Fever Lives, would be as consistently imaginative, inventive, and monumentally impressive as it is.
Past Waters/Fever Lives is a home-produced album quite unlike any other. Typically, bedroom records sound exactly like that: an artist tinkering with whatever equipment they have to make diversionary, often agreeably low-key music. Serra, however, has managed to craft a truly jaw-dropping listening experience, and I emphasize that word. An experience that boasts a level of technical expertise that's second to none. Instead of limiting himself to a handful of instruments or sounds, Serra seems to have utilized everything, maybe even the kitchen sink, in the process of making Past Water/Fever Lives. It's a release that won't appeal to everyone; this work strikes me as a complex piece of art rather than a standard music recording, but those willing to embark on a singular sonic adventure should prepare to have their minds blown.
The album's first four tracks make up the “Past Water” composition, one that starts off with a movement (?) entitled “Oceans.” Dreamy clanging bells signal the piece's beginning, and it immediately feels as if one is being transported across space and time, with twiddling strings and a warm ambiance conveying a sense of wonderment and awe. The piece may as well be designed to create a sort of religious experience in the listener, with a sense of harmonics that, at times, recalls those found in vintage Godspeed You! Black Emperor records. Overall though, the music perhaps more reminds me of German ambient electronic project Popol Vuh, punctuated by multi-layered and almost operatic vocals. To be fair, it took some time for me to warm up to Serra's vibrato-laden vocals: in the hands of a lesser-qualified performer, vocals like this might seem downright goofy, but Serra pulls them off exceedingly well. It also doesn't hurt that they're positively gorgeous in context.
As “Oceans” moves along, the thick ambiance gives way to an acoustic-driven segment with a fascinating layer of percussion sounding under the pleasant main tune. Drifting above the instrumentation, Serra's resonating voice effortlessly soars into tenor range, and towards the end of the piece, parts of heavier, distorted guitar intrude during a beautifully chaotic climax before a fade out finale.
Clacking percussion and acoustic guitar kick things off in second movement “Gnosis.” Again, the vocals are fantastically melodic and engrossing, with the lyrical passage “drawing me into a dreamworld / the only world I know” seeming to reflect the sensibility of the entire work. One of my favorite aspects of this piece is the almost spectral background wails that pop up intermittently throughout, and the intricate layering of sounds here – and honestly throughout the album – is utterly breathtaking. Like the opening number, “Gnosis” winds down with a louder and comparatively more aggressive climax and serene finish, but the album goes in a somewhat different, but no less interesting, direction on “Of the Sea.” Significantly less bombastic, this piece bathes the listener in a comforting haze of tinkling bells, providing a nice set up for the jubilant and frankly exciting start of “Green Sun.” This track concludes the “Past Waters” composition, ever so gradually working into a glorious verse around its halfway point, with astral guitar creating soothing mood underneath the wonderful harmonies being exhibited in the main voice parts.
Following this track, the album includes a minute-long track of silence designed to delineate between its two larger compositions. I kind of like this choice on the part of the artist: it allows the listener a (literal) minute to process what has just been heard – and yes, experienced.
Minor vocal harmonies positioned at the onset of “Torrent” indicate to the listener that the overwhelming vibe has indeed changed. This opening movement of “Fever Lives” has an almost Persian flavor to it with its clattering percussion and slightly off-kilter melodic structure. It's somewhat amazing then that the vocals, even when nearly reaching a screamed intensity, integrate so perfectly into this seemingly odd formula. Snake-charmer melodies and an almost calamitous variety of sounds appear around the track's midpoint, then vanish as an ethereal vocal choir emerges. Initially inviting, a sense of unease slowly creeps into the piece, with the backing voices teetering on the edge of a descent into madness, but things eventually coalesce and the track ends on the same sort of note with which it began.
A folk-like tune with calm but undeniably haunting Spanish-language vocals, “Érase” seems to me to suggest an inevitable process of forward motion, after all, time waits for no one. Follow-up track “Molih ta (majcho i molih)” is an a cappella, SATB adaptation of a traditional Bulgarian folk song, with all the voice parts commandingly, performed by Serra. These two tracks are possibly the “simplest,” and some might consider the lesser, components of this album, yet they are absolutely stunning in their manner of execution – particularly the overall arrangement heard in the Bulgarian number. The atmospheric instrumental “Temple of Forgotten Saints” solidifies the otherworldly feel of the album while simultaneously conveying a sense of majesty and reverence through its almost mechanically-precise string parts and breathy woodwind asides. “Fever Lives” (and the album as a whole) finishes with “Sister, Mother,” a piece that slithers through a very ethnic-sounding opening into a joyous midsection prior to unleashing a faux-metal conclusion replete with staggered rhythms and pounding percussion accents.
Quite a few years ago, while I was heavily invested in all sorts of weird musical offerings, a friend of mine recommended the first album from Beirut. Though I enjoyed the album to an extent, it never quite became something I could completely get behind. Moñecho's debut does just about everything that I might have wanted from Zach Condon's project, and in fact, Past Waters/Fever Lives stands as a release that makes the typical Beirut record pale in comparison: it's wide in scope and absolutely marvelous in its execution. Alas, at the time I was putting together my top 2015 25 list on this very site last year, I hadn't had the opportunity to spend as much time with Past Waters/Fever Lives as the record deserves. Surely, this is one of the most genuinely outstanding releases of 2015. That said, it is incredibly dense and probably would strike some people as challenging, but everyone needs an adventure now and again, don't they? Highly recommended.
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