Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Record review: Pillars and Tongues - 'The Pass and Crossings'

By Reagan Healey

The recent return of gothic sensibilities to popular music has been a strange one. Artists like Zola Jesus, Chelsea Wolfe and Former Ghosts seemed to appear practically out of nowhere, and their recent success has been just as inexplicable. This is the changing face of the dark. This is where the eerie side of pop was apparently hiding these past few years, and it’s this same strange alcove where Chicago three-piece Pillars and Tongues draw the somber yet incessant energy for their 35-minute release The Pass and Crossings. They haven’t exactly altered their sound since Lay of Pilgrim Park; they haven’t even really expanded it. To the contrary, with the release of The Pass and Crossings, Pillars and Tongues seem more focused than ever, relying less on vocal loops and sampling for a sound that is poignantly spare yet abyssal.

The influx of apocalyptic imagery and spooky arrangements into music’s mainstream doesn’t really fit neatly into what we’re accustomed to calling “gothic” in popular culture. Gone are the vampires, tombstones and overwrought theatrics. In fact, Pillars and Tongues are not exactly unique in that they tread much more closely to the traditional associations of Gothic literature as opposed to music. In The Pass and Crossings, nature is an ever-looming presence, cast in an eldritch, threatening light and endowed with an almost mystical significance. In “Oaky (Doting),” Mark Trecka moans: you are wading in your springs / you are an oaken ash / you are come upon your veils / you are wild grass. A sublime sensation of destiny and doom has replaced the old clich├ęs of “goth,” and the sad truth is we don’t really have a good word for it.

Central to the sense of doom that pervades The Pass and Crossings is the interplay between Elizabeth Remis’s violin and Trecka’s harmonium (which permeates the entire record). On the epic dirge “A Dance In the Billowing Absence,” the album’s first and (at over nine minutes) longest track, the violin is highly reminiscent of Nick Cave’s score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In fact, there is something very cinematic about the scope of the band’s sound as a whole; the moods of songs shift over their course as if narrating some unseen film. In the case of the first track, tension builds as the harmonium slowly takes over. It sounds like a funeral organ.

The band is most affecting when it assumes these quasi-religious overtones. My personal favorite track on the release is probably “The Making Graceful” for its perfect mixture of disturbing obsession and almost pious devotion. Throughout the record, Pillars and Tongues utilizes Middle Eastern scales and psalm-like song structures. In the best moments, the spiritualism seems to barely camouflage a deep chasm of sexuality and animosity. In “The Making Graceful” as well as the album’s closer, “Decadent Crossing” the divine covers the dark and bottomless pit like a thin blanket of dead leaves.

Thank you, Oaky by Pillars and Tongues

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Check out more record reviews:
Ian Hoffman - Dome Swan
Rocket Miner - Songs for an October Sky
Pinto & the Bean - The Waiting Place
Tiny Magnets - Time to Try
To Destroy A City - S/T

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