Reigns – The House On The Causeway

Reigns - The House On The Causeway

Reigns - The House On The Causeway

Pastoral imagery in music is nothing new. Beehoven had it pretty well figured out back in 1803 with his Symphony No. 6, in which five movements depict countryside scenes of merriment and bucolic bliss put on hold by an unexpectedly turbulent thunderstorm. The brothers Farthing (Tim and Roo) and their project Reigns have made a career out of exploiting the thunderstorm; examining the darker imagery of nature through a delicious mixture of synth bass, club beats, rollicking piano melodies, and vocals that sound awfully similar to the android on Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier.” For a world pockmarked with wars, vicious diseases, and a global financial crisis, the frequently ominous soundscapes of this British duo seem all too relevant and applicable to modern life. When you wrap your brain around that, the record’s power to emotionally shatter you becomes evident.

Certainly, a bit of imagination is going to help you digest this record more easily. The plotline runs like this: the brothers Farthing (going by their aliases Operatives A and B) discover a man-made causeway that extends half a mile into the foggy waters of the English Channel. Due to the incredibly dense air though, few people have taken note of this unassuming structure jutting out into the sea (except of course, the makers of this album). When A and B gain access to the causeway on an uncharacteristically fog-free day, they find at its highest point a deserted house (see the album cover for a spooky illustration). They spend two days there, documenting the sights, sounds, and atmospheres, and come away with 11 tracks of melancholic electronica.

Apparently, the house also had a vocoder in it, which the brothers use gratuitously throughout the album’s running time. In most cases, the heavily processed voices combine the weary whisper of Tool’s Maynard James Keenan with the guttural singsong of KMFDM’s En Esch (“The Black Cramp” is one such track). Take away these indecipherable cyborg vocals, and there is nary a weak link to be found on The House On The Causeway.

The album is bookended by “(frontplate)” and “(endplate),” two nearly identical tracks of ambient droning. Both songs also feature a grating high-pitched frequency that comes off as either a dog whistle or a raging case of tinnitus. One can only assume this to be the sound of the fog that enshrouds the causeway; according to the Operatives, there is actually a detectable pitch when the fog is at its thickest. Were it not for the incessant ringing, both of these tunes would be right at home on any Stars Of The Lid album.

Elsewhere on the album, the duo indulges their flair for finding the perfect balance between brooding post rock and electronic-tinged folk. On “Bad Slate,” we find Kid A-era vocals mingling with reverb drenched guitar leads, Bjork-esque drumbeats, and subterrestrial synth bass. The only vocal fragment to be understood is a robotic voice inquiring, “How do you sleep?” “Mirrors At Night” is a standout track in which a gorgeously picked acoustic guitar begins to envelope itself, creating cascading layers of minimalist bliss. It’s one of the happiest moments on the whole record, despite the eerie whispers and dissonant piano pulses in the background. “Vaulted” finds Reigns channeling a little bit of Moby. The song features cascading waves of static that sound just like the ocean, as well as despondent piano and guitar inflections that seem soaked with nostalgic longing.

“Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen,” with its weeping piano part, seems like it would fit nicely on the soundtrack of any Thomas Newman-scored film. “Crex, Crex, Crex” seems to most closely resemble the trip-hop perfection of Portishead, as hissy electronics and foreboding strings brush alongside one another. And yet despite all of these connections to more recognizable talent, Reigns still manage to sound like no one other than themselves.

The concept may be far-fetched, but if you are willing to suspend your disbelief, The House On The Causeway should be one of the best electronic-driven releases of the year. However, as a cautionary conclusion, I do recommend you follow the advice of the band’s promoter: “Please do not drive, exercise, or operate heavy machinery after listening.”