When a “back to basics” band pops up on the radar – as the White Stripes and Strokes did earlier this decade – it’s usually taken as a retort to the gluttonous indulgences of groups who are creating music at the opposite end of the spectrum, where high drama and grand gestures happen to reside. And when the “keep-it-simple-stupid” approach actually begins to shift massive record units, it’s likely a sign that aural excess is, at least for a fleeting moment, taboo.
Given the expansive and sometimes cerebral quality of indie rock’s biggest names these past few years (Arcade Fire and Wilco come to mind), you’d think we’re about due for a “stripped down” revolution like the one that saw Jack White give Scott Stapp a rightful kick in the pants nearly ten years ago. Not that I’m equating Win Butler or Jeff Tweedy with Stapp and his slick brand of life affirming dude rock; I truly hope that Win Butler and Jeff Tweedy continue to release records with their respective outfits for years to come. Still, it’s always been said that what goes around comes around, and it seems like we’re at that point in the cycle where a revolt is just around the bend. But if the music on Black Feather’s debut album is any indication, it seems that whatever is going around is on one hell of a slow orbit.
Black Feather, for all intents and purposes, is the guise of Norwegian guitarist Harald Frøland. Having recently retired from his longtime post as a member of the Scandinavian nu-jazz outfit Jaga Jazzist, Frøland was able to concentrate exclusively on a solo LP under his new name. The resulting nine-song collection happens to make substantial use of his former employer’s penchant for eclectic and densely layered orchestrations, thanks in part to a slew of guest appearances from members of the Jaga family. When your instrumentation includes, among other things, a minimoog, pump organ, bass clarinet, and joik, it’s probably a sign that simplicity is not of paramount concern.
Heartily embracing the “more is more” approach, the album is extravagant in every aspect, from the liberal use of delay and reverb, to the extended song lengths. With a deliberate intent to come off as dark, esoteric, and ruminative, the band ends up delivering 45 minutes of heavy handed shoegaze-y psychedelia. Some might argue that Sigur Rós is guilty of the same thing, but where the Icelandic quartet excels at slow and dramatic alternations in tension, these guys don’t seem to know when to let up a bit.
The album puts the haze in place with opener “The Cut,” a druggy blast of lethargic arena rock that at first listen, seems to recall a sleepy town coming to life at sunrise. It turns out Frøland – who sings like a slightly less impassioned Jon Crosby of Vast – has a knack for catchy vocal melodies. Sadly though, the contour of his lines (and his lyrics, too) get buried in the frothing sea of ambient noise. It’s a problem that plagues the album as a whole, and as a result, the vocals are often reduced to mere texture. “Shake Me Awake” is prime shoegaze material, with chiming guitar lines, searing distortion, and clamoring mallet percussion. Featuring what seems to be an infinite number of layers, the song feels like a foggy dream from which you can’t awake.
Through the remaining seven tracks, the mood changes very little. “If You Can’t Feel Yr. Heart” sounds like something spawned from the Madchester scene before dirge-like bass and piano bring back the mournfulness. In a rare instance of vocal clarity, the song gets cheesier when Frøland sings, “If you can’t feel your heart / your heart will find you.” The tinny, Postal Service electronics of “Razor Blade” are overshadowed by gargantuan drums that sound like they were recorded in some sort of cave. Add to that the tremolo effect of the guitar, and the song begins to feel mildly oceanic: massive, overwhelming, and numbing.
Make no mistake though: Harald Frøland is very good at what he does, and if all you’re looking for is a passive listening experience, then Silhouette will suit your needs just fine. It is as dark, ominous, and mysterious as its name implies, but unlike true silhouettes, this shadow’s edges are blurred and its shape does not change.