Writing about the self or from the self in one way or the other is the point of reference for a majority of song-based rock music. This usually brings to mind songs filled with first-person reflections on attitudes, motivations, social relations, needs, desires, and emotions. Though the language and themes inevitably are simple and repetitious, great songwriters usually can make due with the limitation, wrenching out new meanings by applying perspective. Dave Heumann is not really interested in writing those folksy sorts of songs, though he is interested in using the self to write about the mysteries of life and forms of perception. On heavy rocking Arbouretum’s fourth album, The Gathering, he gathers imagery at turns psychedelic, medieval, and naturalistic to support a feeling of significance rooted in the deep timelessness of the human spirit and our collective unconscious.
Heumann has a knack for chasing these big ideas with a broad vocabulary and a feel for good-sounding words that everybody knows but rarely uses (e.g. ashen, fathom, gloaming, garments, and so on). The big ideas here are made bigger by the support of the massiveness of the band’s music. Paring down to one guitarist and adding a keyboardist (mostly for texture, not melody), the group sounds refined to an essence yet more powerful than ever. They conjure images of a band of giants blasting their sound out over a valley from high atop a mountain. Heumann’s sludgy but freewheeling guitar is still the focal point – here soloing more within a small range of notes but mixing them up and playing with his riff’s rhythms – and his voice is equal parts low-range manly and high-range soaring as needed, sounding confident but more interested in telling a story with reverences than hooking your mirror neurons into sharing an emotion. The drums are booming and the bass drones up and down a small range, and the band play well together as a tight unit willing to go wherever Heumann takes them.
“The White Bird” is a great lead-off track, deceptively both heavy and light until Heumann’s vocal glides up the scale lifting the song skywards like the titular animal, riding the wind of his ever-shifting arpeggios. One of the album’s main themes – being mentally ready for making realizations when the symbols present themselves – is introduced here and continues through the eerily stringed, slow drama of “When Delivery Comes”, which shows a man extricating himself from his earthly problems of low rank and servitude by positioning himself on the high road, waiting to recognize and seize his chance to escape. A cover of “The Highwayman” balances the album in the middle, separating the somewhat slower and more reflective first half from the slightly speedier and more jammy second half. It’s a fantastically selected and interpreted cover that makes you forget the self-referential, good old boys take the outlaw country all-stars Nelson, Jennings, Kristofferson, and Cash used as their theme, and brings back the elegiac aura of Jimmy Webb’s original, and it’s exploration of masculinity’s fall but ultimate persistence plays nicely with the album’s use of archetypes as lenses to view the human condition. The album closes with an exhilarating blowout on the snakelike “Song of the Nile” which hears Heumann hollering out, plodding melodically, changing key, introducing noise and shredding like a badass.
Heumann’s lyrics encourage opening up to the shared archetypes and inner visions accessible in different states of human consciousness – crows on wires, cities of towers, halls of a thousand rooms, and the alignment of planetary bodies – and considering them as meaningful signs which might provide connection between yourself and everything. Appropriately for an album called The Gathering, the esthetic Arbouretum achieves feels somewhat monolithic – overarching and whole instead of neurotic and splintered – and in this manner should provide healing properties for a psyche battered around by all the little specifics of daily life.