Seaven Teares - Power Ballads
In the wake of the brilliant and ferocious Extra Life, composer Charlie Looker's attentions have turned to two new acts, the "depth metal" Psalm Zero and the (superficially) gentler Seaven Teares, whose recorded debut, "Power Ballads," recently dropped via Northern Spy. To some degree, Seaven Teares is a further distillation of some of the early-music ideals behind the Extra Life canon, and I think most fans of Extra Life will find much to like here, but there's something even darker happening in the folds of "Power Ballads."
It's probably worth addressing the John Dowland influence on this music first: the band's name references Dowland's "Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares," a set of compositions published in 1604. The Lachrimae themselves are instrumental variations on his lute song "Flow My Tears," an arrangement of which is found on this record. In his time, Dowland's tunes were quite popular, and though his lyrics tend toward the darker side of existence--loss, loneliness, sadness, etc--those kinds of subjects are so intensely universal, they never go out of style. And I think it's worth noting that much of Dowland's work was intended as dance music in the Renaissance era, particularly the slow, deliberate, melancholy vibes of the pavane. The pavane is a basse danse, where your feet are dragging across the floor, as opposed to an uptempo ho-down kind of vibe, and collectively the scene around Dowland's work seems kind of like a protogoth spectacle, where I'm sure the somber dirges of Bauhaus would have been a welcome jam if they'd had kerosene powered 8-tracks tricking out horse-drawn carriages of the day.
The orchestration for Looker's Seaven Teares project allows for an aural palette that can be relatively faithful to Dowland's music: guitar and voices dominate, percussion is generally delicate and stays out of the way, and recorders make frequent appearances. Added to the textures of early music, the droning atmospheric potential of the harmonium and simple sinewave-y synth tones sound perfectly at home here, and modern lute badass Jozef Van Wissem makes an appearance on a cover of "Them Bones" by Alice in Chains (more on that later). Like Dowland, the music of Seaven Teares draws heavily from the folk tradition, drawing from deep universal themes with a kind of direct simplicity--the more metrically complex moments of Extra Life are mostly gone in this music, replaced with an unambiguous focus on the music and the lyrics. And the recording itself sounds like it was captured mostly live, with some requisite room-reverb-mud and distortion in the mix adding to the somber vibes of the songs.
But I don't think Seaven Teares intends for this music to be taken medicinally as some kind of high-art history lesson. Dowland is part of the context, but most of these songs focus on issues that are as acutely moving today as any era. It's just interesting to note how much of the human experience stays relevant to people of any era, that we've all struggled with similar forms of despair well before the collective shift of our eyes downward into a fragmented abyss of touchscreen telephones.
The "universal feel" in the sound of Seaven Teares is greatly enhanced by dual lead vocals throughout the album: mostly relinquishing the lead singer role in this band, Looker is joined on most tunes by the voice of Amirtha Kidambi. In various configurations of singing in unison, harmonizing, or trading verses, the male/female co-vocal approach gives this music more gender inclusiveness than the often-masculine vibes of Extra Life. Charlie takes over vocals on a few noteworthy occasions, though, including the disturbing tale found in "Like Your Black Hair."
For Extra Life fans, your favorite jam on "Power Ballads" is going to be "Our Lady of Sound." Synths are more dominant here, with a sound approaching "Ripped Heart"-era Extra Life. The drums, devoid of cymbal work, have an almost country feel on this tune, and it's easily the most uptempo number found here. And the album closer actually IS an Extra Life tune: the acoustic/vocal number "Thin Veil" previously heard on the Nat Baldwin/Extra Life split LP from 2008 is recast here with recorder countermelodies and harmonium drones, heavy on unison vocals and performed at a gloomy fraction of the tempo of the original.
Perhaps the most capital-c confounding moment on the album for me is the cover of "Them Bones" by Alice in Chains. It's slowed down to about a quarter of its original tempo, the relentless vibes of the original turned into a funereal dirge. The 7/8 time of the original gets lost at this speed, instead taking on a triple meter feel on every chromatic shift of pitches in the verses. And the choruses are gentle, careful, "so alone." This weirded me the fuck out at first, remembering the acute punishment of the original and thinking of the songs creepy prescience toward Layne Stayley's early death, but after a while of swaying in its slow breeze of despair, I can vibe on it.
The packaging on this album deserves a special mention: the cover and inner jacket reproduce three paintings by Dawn Frasch, full of baroque gore rendered with a lot of purples and pinks. Like the music of Seaven Teares, Frasch's art picks up on the underpinnings of death and darkness found in a lot of Renaissance art, and amps up the gore and despair to fully occupy the painfully large voids opened into our culture by Faces of Death, or Jerry Springer, or whatever modern equivalent of the Roman Colosseum you prefer. "Power Ballads" gets darker than I generally prefer to linger, but I'm glad this band can face Gehenna without flinching.
--also published at Killed In Cars