Apologies to anyone who hates literature, because it’s happening more and more: I start listening to an album that’s on the review queue, and I’m peremptorily unable to not form some sort of overarching association between that album and the book I happen to be reading at the same time. Maybe I’m projecting, or maybe it’s some strange cosmic synchronicity seeking to align what I’m hearing with what I’m reading, but regardless it’s more than just some fluke.

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

Anyway, this time it’s Windhand and Proust. I read the first volume of Proust’s 7-volume, semi-autobiographical colossus, In Search of Lost Time, while in college, read the 2nd volume a couple years after, but since then have not had the opportunity to complete the arduous task. I recently decided to resume, but instead of picking up where I left off, I started from the beginning, and plan to read a volume a year until I’ve finished the sucker off.

Despite the monstrous length of the work – it would probably be at least 4,000 pages if bound in a single volume – and despite the fact that I’ve only read about a quarter of it, I’m pretty confident that it can nonetheless be summed up pretty easily: It’s the story of a guy’s life, set inside the narrative framework of said guy laying in bed, drifting in and out of sleep, being led by a string of memories and impressions to recall the events that have transpired since his early childhood, and to relate those to the reader. Sure, it’s not the most unique premise in the world, but its prefigurative experimentations with stream of consciousness writing, as well as its massive scope, have allowed it to stand as a true milestone in the history of literature. But beyond that, it’s just plain good. Like, really fucking good. For me anyway, it would doubtlessly secure a place in any short list were I asked which pieces of writing might be described as “orgasmic”. And much of that has to do with how convincingly he puts you in the same physical and mental state of himself as narrator, lying in bed, wavering through periods of wakefulness, sleep, memory, and dream, each blending into the next so seamlessly that you’re often unsure exactly which you are subject to at a given moment. It had been a long time since I had read Proust, but as soon as I opened it up for round 2, I recalled how instantly and irrevocably it pulls you into a state of warm dreaminess. Trust me, you can read this standing up on a crowded subway in summer and still feel as comfortable as a puppy dog wrapped in a fuzzy blanket sipping hot cocoa. TRUST ME.

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So not only was I thinking about Proust when I started listening to the new Windhand album, Grief’s Infernal Flower, by simple virtue of the fact that it is my current book, but this idea of artworks dragging you into slumber seemed particularly relevant as it became clear how concerned this album is with ideas of sleep. I mean, just look at some of the lyrics:

I go to sleep, a hundred years
Til I am free, til I forget the spell
I made your bed
I pulled the covers down
I tucked you in
I put you in the ground
-from “Forest Clouds

When I wake you cannot know me
When I sleep I dream of death
-from “Sparrow”

And there is silence in that slumber
-from “Kingfisher”

Goodnight my child, goodnight
Sweet dreams before the light
Goodnight my child, the darkness has come
Goodnight my child, goodnight

Dream of my emerald eyes
Dream of my emerald eyes
The summer has gone and so soon shall be I
Dream of my emerald eyes
-from “Aition”

So, while saying of an album that “it will put you to sleep” would typically be considered an insult, I’m inclined to think that it’s exactly what Windhand are going for on Grief’s Eternal Flower. Of course, for this to be a good album – for it to achieve artistic unity – there would need to be a sonic counterpart to this apparent thematic fixation on the soporific. So then we ask: does this album sound like sleep? Does it sound like Sleep?

Well the 2nd of those questions was just a joke, and one I couldn’t possibly avoid making, but the first is still one worth asking in earnest, and to address it I think a good thing to do would be compare these guys to Pallbearer. After all, as far as I’m concerned, these are the two foremost (young) bands bands bearing the torch in what may very well be a sort of new wave of doom metal, a genre which is often otherwise dominated by geezers. I love both of these bands, and I think they both offer something very refreshing and new even in such a monochromatic genre, but in some ways they couldn’t sound more different if they wanted. Pallbearer seems concerned with painting very large but very pristine paintings of sound, and as a result there is a certain sterility in their aesthetic. One might say that a Pallbearer album is best enjoyed from behind a thick, spotless pane of glass, as one would look upon an enfortressed Rodin in a well-lit gallery with white floors, walls, and ceilings. It demands your attention, and maybe even your sobriety, to be appreciated.

There is, on the other hand, something much more human about this Windhand record, and about their sound as a whole. It’s immediate, encompassing, and terrestrial. If Pallbearer is Apollonian, Windhand is Dionysian; it does not ask that you observe and appreciate it from afar so much as it demands your physical presence and participation within it. The tools by which Windhand achieves this are by no means new to the world of doom metal, but throughout this record we see the band using them to their full effect, and reaping the very visceral fruit thereof. I’m talking about huge, downtuned guitars that are not spotless but murky, that weigh one down with astonishing palpability. And I’m talking about riffs so endlessly repetitive as to approximate night, which does not begin or end, but simply approaches from the other side of the globe to cover our own hemisphere once more with the heavy, black blanket that is the sky. I mean, look at that album cover and tell me I’m not on the right track here. This album is of the earth, and of the impending nightfall. Artistic unity, man. Lyrics, check. Sound, check. Artwork, check. These things don’t all just work, they work together. And if “sleepy doom metal” strikes you as old hat, I ask you to reconsider the importance of doing something new, as opposed to the importance of doing something well. Give me the latter any day.

Dorthia Cottrell is certainly not the only croony female vocalist in the doom/stoner/psych metal world(s), but she’s probably the best. Clearly this is nowhere more evident than on the album’s 2 acoustic tracks, “Sparrow” and “Aition”, both of which feature only a single acoustic guitar and Cottrell’s absolutely haunting voice, in clear contrast to the walls of electric destruction which color the album elsewhere. Such a bold attempt at intimacy, especially in the context of such large and loud music, all too often falls flat, and feels feigned. Here, however, they are moments of true, harrowing beauty. As thick and breathy as it is graceful, Cottrell’s voice is peppered with a stunning abundance of expression, and foregoes any attempt at shallow prettiness in favor of a weary and contemplative tone, rich with equal parts beauty and sorrow. On the album’s other tracks – those with the amps plugged in – her vocals are mixed with an admirable humility, kept low enough in the mix to emphasize their role not as orator but as instrument. Did I mention artistic unity?

Grief’s Infernal Flower is a sprawling, devastating, and ultimately gorgeous monster of an album. With it, Windhand rightfully secures their place as arguably the most relevant American doom act. Let it haunt your dreams and reality alike.

 

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