Review by: The Administrator
The first time I heard this album was not a standard listening experience.
It was nighttime, and I was walking through miles of vaguely unfamiliar neighborhoods en route to my car, which was parked--abandoned, out of necessity--on the street with a flat tire. It was blizzarding with a slow fury, the kind of dense snow that doesn't fall violently, but rather languidly, with full knowledge of the incalculable weight of its component parts. A vehicular retrieval mission was in order, but, with the full realization that the next few days would inevitably be defined by the encroaching snow-in, there was not exactly a sense of urgency. Hence: a perfect time to crank some tunes most foreboding.
Enter Ancestral Memory, a split album by the enigmatic The Sun Came Up Upon The Left and the gloriously (astoundingly? frighteningly?) prolific Everson Poe. Needless to say, a suitably significant impression was left with me in the dark and the snow. Indeed, I recently described this stellar release as "one of my very favorite albums of the year thusfar." Given the sheer quantity of quality music that rings through these humble halls, I hope that designation carries some sort of weight.
Ancestral Memory represents a brilliant meeting and melding of minds, the result of which is a harrowing, crushing, and otherwise (tastefully) overwhelming experience. It's a delicate and paradoxical balance between chest-crushingly beautiful and chest-crushingly depressive. While any attempt at genre categorization is fraught with peril--more on that later--a good ol' F(or) F(ans) O(f) goes a long way in terms of helping navigate the waters. On this particular subject, promo material namedrops Thou, Oathbreaker, Amenra, Un, Kowloon Walled City, Mizmor, Vile Creature, Windhand, and Subrosa--a list of heavy hitters if I've ever seen one. Ancestral Memory does not sound like a product of these artists per se, but the thematic and aesthetic approach is notably similar across the board: sweeping and emotive soundscapes, heavy on the atmosphere and the introspection.
While each side carries presents a unique sonic and emotive identity, there are some factors uniting them. The general sense of foreboding, for one. The present of a dizzying array of vocal styles and delivery, for another. The inclusion of vocal samples are perhaps the most obvious common characteristic: both artists use 'em, albeit to slightly different effects. The Sun Came Up Upon The Left employs spoken word to create borderline-hypnotic mantras, whereas Everson Poe's heavy use of samples comes from a more narrative perspective.
Kicking things off with Side A, The Sun Came Up Upon The Left excels at creating oppressive and mind-altering environments that feel, for lack of a better term, subtly in-organic. It's an approach that intrinsically creates a sense of distrust and discomfort, yet draws the listener in with quicksand-esque influence. Listening to this half of the album is akin to taking a stroll through the unfamiliar recesses of one's own subconscious--or, y'know, like taking a languid walk through a blizzard at night on a quest to find one's car. Different strokes for different folks.
The oddest aspect of the first four tracks is the apparent lack of sonic cohesion. Opener "A Dream Upon Waking" is a spooky affair, balancing airy instrumentation with nightmarish caught-between-sleep-and-waking samples. The slow-burning and atonal "Loss of Self" feels more solid in its post-black approach...which is promptly upended by the the slow lurch of "A Coward's Expression of Doubt:" menacing in a vaguely militaristic way. However, Side A truly comes into its own on on the capstone track, the ethereal and doomy "Clouded Mirror." Here, the vocals swirl and weave with a near-hallucinogenic quality, and the deliberate repetition only adds to the immersive effect. While the aforementioned "Loss of Self" does feel a tad overlong for the ideas it delivers, the The Sun Came Up Upon The Left formula--if this seemingly madcap collection of elements can indeed be considered a formula--is a marked success. These songs are consuming, wholly and completely.
In contrast, the sample-forward Everson Poe half lends gloom and doom, alongside sharp inclusions of an outwardly aggressive bite. If I were invested in a specific overarching genre I might label this as blackened post-doom, but that's a pretty useless descriptor in the grand scheme, so take it with a grain of salt. Regardless, the aesthetic is intimidating, albeit in a more somber and melancholic sense--a quality that has become her calling card across a variety of genres and releases.
Very few people are able to incorporate samples so effectively, and the three Everson Poe tracks here feel like a prelude of sorts to her full length release from this past April. As stated inour brief review of said album, Grief, the use of samples is a "tactic that would seem cliché in lesser hands, but ends up creating a genuinely captivating narrative and conceptual arc." The same applies here, and the personality and emotion imparted is palpable. Indeed, upon the first few listens, there were moments on the front half of "Becoming Part II" where the various voices seemingly overwhelmed the instrumentation--an initial distraction that, after a while, actually became part of the appeal.
But all this talk of samples shouldn't detract from the underlying music itself, which switches from ambient serenades to eerie gothic atmosphere to blast-ridden aggression with an admirable seamlessness. The vocals fall anywhere between blackened shrieks to sludgy bellows to a post-metal croon, each iteration of her voice serving to highlight the overall tone. If you're looking to sample, "Malleus Maleficarum" is an excellent place to start, although the mournful drone-laden closer, "Corruption, Thou Art My Father," is (probably?) my favorite track herein.
Despite various distinctions, the two acts work together with a rare precision, demonstrating their impressive individual abilities without ever overshadowing the other's strengths. The release as a whole doesn't feel disjointed or inconsistent. The best splits are those wherein each artist shines brightly without overly dictating the direction of the overall image, and here, I simply don't think you could have a more cohesive and mutually supportive pairing. At the end of the day, Ancestral Memory is an impressive piece of art on both an individualistic and a holistic basis. And, on a purely pragmatic basis, it is a release that maintains its emotive trappings after many, many listens. Re-playability is an underrated quality, but for those who like to sink fully into the same album time and time again, Ancestral Memory presents an ideal opportunity for multiple distinct experiences. After my blizzardy adventure, for example, I took a hot shower, curled up on the couch, and listened to it again with warm ears. Both listening experiences were truly splendid.
As ye might imagine, this album comes highly recommended. Find it here!
THE SUN CAME UP UPON THE LEFT & EVERSON POE - Ancestral Memory was released Jan. 22nd from Trepanation Recordings
We provide thoughtful reviews of music that is heavy, gloomy...and loud enough to wake us from slumber. Written by a highfalutin peasantry!