Seeming: Madness and Extinction
So let’s not pretend that this is an impartial review. It’s not. It’s just a commitedly partisan case for why this is an incredibly good album that deserves to be recognized as a major album. In a just world, in ten year’s time some arrogant blogger and his music professor friend will write a 33 1/3 book about this album. In a just world, it will be on “greatest something or others of the sometime or others” lists in music magazines. It is phenomenal and brilliant and you should buy it, whether on iTunes, Amazon, Amazon UK, or from the label itself. If you want a preview, the album is available for streaming here.
Really. You should go buy it. I mean, feel free to finish the blogpost and listen to the embedded songs and all that, but please, really, if you like it, buy it. First week sales matter absolutely massively for things like this. This is a new band and a first album, and if it turns good first week numbers then that translates to a successful band that gets to do more albums. If you like what you hear and read here and think you might buy it, please, please, do it this week.
That out of the way, let’s get to the fun bit, where I talk about why this is so good.
Seeming is not Alex’s first band. As ThouShaltNot he put out four albums packed with satisfyingly and seductively catchy goth/darkwave grooves. His knack for an earworm is impeccable. And every song on Madness and Extinction demonstrates that skill. But they do it without being anything like a straightforward or approachable pop song.
Instead the pop hooks keep withering in front of you, or slithering just out of view, hiding and teasing from deep beneath the intricate soundscapes that he’s built up. I mentioned above that the album has been in the works since 2007. And that shows. Not just because it has the benefit of cherry picking the best of Alex’s songwriting over the last seven years, but because it means that every song is a rich and dense object full of beautiful noise and splendor.
The result are songs that get caught in your head, but that, marvelously, don’t grow tired and cliche as you listen to them. I got my preview copy on Friday and have been listening the album half to death, and I still find new things catching my ears on each listen.
Here, let’s do the thing where we talk about a specific song. Here’s “Everything Could Change.”
What starts as an unnerving and atmospheric song that seems to build towards an inevitable crescendo, at the start of the second verse, simply swaps out its entire sound palette for something completely different. The first verse is all growling bass and the sound of distantly creaking floorboards. But the second verse changes to something altogether more yearning, the paranoia of the first verse giving way to a weariness, the song desperately trying to reach across its own static and noise to connect with a listener, or indeed, with anything at all. The music becomes at once altogether more scared of itself and strangely hopeful. And by the third shift in the song, as the bridge proceeds to take over and finally drown out the vocals, the song has become something seemingly miles from what it started out as – something that would sound altogether more soothing and peaceful had the lyrics not already called into question the possibility of “a soothing word.”
It’s also, mind you, got a glorious, catchy chorus and lyrics that capture the visceral feeling of creative mania in all its terror and beauty like nothing else I’ve ever heard. In this regard it nicely fulfills the first half of the album title’s promise. But lurking within the lyrics are, inevitably, hints of the others. The singer will “be talking when I am dead and soil, and the sound will remain when I carbonize to oil.” This gets towards the album’s other premise: extinction.
Another song, shall we?
The official tagline of this one is “the bleakest pop single you’ll ever dance to,” which is almost but not quite true. “God will bury you. Nature will bury you,” the lyrics reiterate. But this is not merely a reminder that people will die. Yes, “the children whose days number more than every flower in Europe” and “the gunmen who guard against all of us starving” will be buried, but so will “the lighthouse that faithfully wishes the fishermen starboard” and “the towers erected by contractors named after kings.” But it is worth noting that the song is not about this burial: the title slyly moves the focus. The song is in fact “The Burial” itself, a song that embraces the potency and full extent of the memento mori
Which makes its turn towards the confessional at the song’s bridge all the more compelling. The first person is avoided throughout the song’s buildup. There is a clear address – the song positions itself as being “to” the various figures it invokes, informing them all of its absolute and inevitable truth. But this is done with an impersonal austerity that befits the message that God and nature will “bury your bones unseen.” And then at the bridge the first person finally enters the song to inform us, “I’m not angry, I’m not sad, I’m just stating the fact.” At once the song commits itself to its own prophecy. The “total and absolute” burial becomes not an object of fear but a strange comfort – a bedrock upon which we all rest. It is not a source of fear, nor of grief, but merely the nature of the world.
Extinction, in other words, is the tonic that tempers madness. The album flits back and forth across this line continually. The opening track, “The Eyes of Extinction,” talks of staring at the void of extinction. Yes, in classic Neitzschean form the abyss gazes also, but this is not the point. Rather it is that in becoming “truly gone in annihilation’s splendor” there is a strange peace – the occasion to sing and to create. Madness becomes the frenzied and passionate response to extinction. “Come and stare into the eyes of extinction with me,” the song culminates by concluding, “and together we might see another burning of the dawn.”
And yet on the other extreme extinction becomes the calming influence that tempers madness. “Convincing,” another standout track of the album, serves as a piano ballad of abstractions, speaking of how “how strong the hangman’s hands become with revolution’s swarming buzz” before crashing into a confessional intensity that shatters the safe and abstracted dynamic of “I” and “you” that pop music depends on, becoming something altogether more unnerving. “The Shadows” is an unceasing crescendo of bad acid and apocalyptic vision in which musical resolution is brutally deferred until it is far too late to provide any sort of comfort. It is only in the presence of extinction and the inevitable burial of all things that any sort of calm can be found. And yet the album, with its haunting instrumental “All of This Really Happened” and its final vocal track, a straightforward and yearning cover of Alphaville’s “Welcome to the Sun,” remains on balance strangely optimistic.
This dynamic and interplay is perhaps best captured in the album’s second single, “Goodnight London,” which opens with ninety seconds of apocalyptic sweetness, developing steadily into an oddly comforting lullaby punctuated by the occasional nuclear explosion. Its moments of pounding, anthemic pop glory are sparsely distributed throughout the track; the bit that’s going to snare in your head for days doesn’t appear until nearly three minutes in.
But the careful, measured doses of soaring pop make the song, and indeed the album, all the more enticing. It is not an album that wants to be absorbed and filed. It is one to haunt your dreams and lurk in the back of your days, to discover that you’ve been humming for minutes without noticing. Its twin poles of extremity – the white hot fire of inexpressible personal gnosis and the boundless soil and dust that we will sink to – are perfectly made to lurk at the edges of vision. It is not an album that you will soon be done with. It is not an album that will soon be done with you. I’ve been on about it for 1500 words now, and I’ve not even talked about the frantic isolation of “New Year,” the vast intimacy of “Celestial,” the furious glamour of “Beautiful for the Last Time,” or the strange entwinement of two very different songs that just happen to be the same song in “Come Back.” All of them are strange, difficult, and wondrous songs. There is no resolution or comfort here. Just the churn of something unfathomable that may be void, or god, or death, or genius, or possibly just a really fucking good pop song.
It is the best album I have heard in years. It really is. Please buy it.
March 11, 2014 @ 7:32 am
No matter how wonderful it may be, no other song can be "the bleakest pop single you'll ever dance to," as that title definitively belongs to Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart. Otherwise, very intriguing! I haven't listened to all of them yet, but the little I was able to listen to while eating breakfast this morning reminded me of the Joy Division / New Order era.
March 11, 2014 @ 9:05 am
While I don't think anyone would disagree that Love Will Tear Us Apart is straight up one of the greatest pop songs ever written, I don't have any objection to the idea that a song about how you and everything you know will in time crumble and be utterly forgotten is more bleak than a breakup song, no matter how brilliant a breakup song it might be.
March 11, 2014 @ 10:03 am
I actually find the prospect of me and everything I know in time crumbling and being utterly forgotten to be immensely cheering and satisfying. It's exactly what I need to put a breakup song in perspective.
Which is also a recommendation, just from the other direction. I listened to it the last time you mentioned it, and it really does sound amazing.
March 11, 2014 @ 11:46 pm
This was delicious. Goodnight London reminded me a bit of The Magnetic Fields and I'm not sure why.
March 13, 2014 @ 9:14 am
While I don't think anyone would disagree that Love Will Tear Us Apart is straight up one of the greatest pop songs ever written…
Yo! Over here!
April 28, 2014 @ 9:03 am
This comment has been removed by the author.
April 29, 2014 @ 4:48 am
So, I listened to this album on bandcamp and bought it. Thank you!
I haven't introduced myself at all, but in case you see/notice old comments, I wanted to take the time to say a much larger thank you. (One which financially has been expressed in the form of buying your Hartnell, Troughton, and "Flood" books, all outstanding.) In combination with Andrew Rilstone and Andrew Hickey you have turned me, at age 40, back into a fan of the classic series.
I'd loved Dr. Who dearly from ages 12-14, but then put it completely aside — in favor of girls (not unusual), music (not unusual), and political activism (more unusual for that age, and something I was far too young to think of applying, Jack Graham-style, to a television show). The 2005 revival took exactly three episodes to lose my interest; I knew nothing of Lawrence Miles, but did notice that not only was "Unquiet Dead"'s plot full of mumbo-jumbo, but that it was the second time in three episodes that the Doctor had pleaded for a peaceful treatment of refugees, only for violence and murder to be the correct solution. I didn't expect to care about Doctor Who again — and then, a few months ago, I discovered so much wonderful writing, yours included, about it.
So far I've been re-watching the Peter Davison era, which I recalled as my favorite back in the day, and holding off on reading your opinions until I've finished each episode. It's been nice how often you say what I'd been thinking, only with more detail and perspective. I've used the novelizations to convert my 7- and 5-year-old boys: choosing for quality, I've read them "Castrovalva", "Kinda", and "Snakedance" so far, with "Mawdryn", "Enlightenment", "Frontios", "Planet of Fire", and "Androzani" lined up. (We do completely disagree about Adric, a brave and resourceful young man who gave his life to save Earth from a disastrous explosion and whose more irritating tendencies, in the face of a life traveling amid constant danger and pretty slightly-older women he didn't remotely have the social skills to win over, seem understandable and muted to me. Oh well.)
My wife and I have started reading your "Torchwood" takes, too. We really liked that show, but from our perspective it was an honorary Joss Whedon show. Your commentaries there are illuminating, erudite, and — from our thus-quite-different perspective — amusingly bizarre at times. Much fun.
November 17, 2014 @ 4:57 am
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