“Texture” is one of those words that goes down quite badly in rock music circles. The sound is based on tenets like three chords and the truth and don’t bore us, get to the chorus and anything beyond those iron-clad confines gets the reputation of being too thought and not felt, pretentious or, even worse, arty. It’s one thing to give your music an edge but another entirely if it sounds like you “recorded Brian Eno in his bathroom mashing away at a keyboard.”
So it may be a hard road to travel for the entity known as Shearwater, for even though they can take down a mountain with sound when they want to, or sing softly like the mourning last animal left on earth, this is not the stuff of basic, by-the-book rock and roll. For me, this is a great thing, and the band has pulled off yet another recording that asks to be heard, from start to finish, with your attention focused. For others, it might be jarring. Peter Gabriel circa the Security album and Talk Talk and their masterpiece Laughing Stock could be cited as examples. Jonathan Meiburg, the central figure of the group, fits comfortably among the two and has never met a dynamic shift he didn’t like. The album opens with found-sound singing but heads into a bass drum heartbeat on “Meridian.” A frantic keyboard gives way to an anthemic rocker in “Black Eyes” and the side one closer “God Made Me” starts with acoustics and falsetto, erupts with grungy, thunderous feedback by the last chorus, then sends those guitars into deep background until they sound like the squeal of braking trains. “Runners Of The Sun” is just incredible, a pop song filtered through this (yes) arty aesthetic.
The vinyl version of the album is particularly neat, aside from the gatefold sleeve and the ‘dossier’ booklet that comes with it. Chiefly, the sequencing was made for vinyl, giving each side a clearly defined opening and close (and bonus tracks as well) so that the listener is compelled to sit through the entire musical narrative versus feeling like skipping around, a tendency becoming more prevalent for LP releases that were sequenced for a continuous CD instead, or a standard album where the singles are frontloaded. Plus, the pressing is pristine on heavy stock vinyl, so the separations in each channel really fill up the home stereo speakers. When the band hits a drum in the left channel, you hear it in the left and that separation sounds so much more pronounced this way than on the digital editions. The echoes and reverb all sound natural, a pleasant side effect of “mic’ing the room” and getting the sound not solely from the instruments but off how they sound bouncing off the studio walls and ceiling. From my system, the effect was incredibly natural and few recent recordings have given me the feeling that the band was in the space with me.
I recommend the LP edition without question, but I’d recommend The Golden Archipelago on whatever medium you choose because it’s just that exciting a record, redeeming texture for another generation of music fans.