Conventionally, sophomore albums follow fairly soon after debuts. Not the least bit conventional, Belong’s sophomore full length, Common Era, comes five long years after their debut October Language. The jawdroppingly gorgeous, cinematic dronescapes of that debut have given way to something much more peculiar and singular on their latest release. The Colorloss Record EP, which was released a few years after October Language and was composed of smeary covers of rock songs, introduced vocals – albeit deeply veiled ones – into the duo’s repertoire. This development ostensibly leads the way to the even more song-structured Common Era, an album as initially surprising as it is enduringly mysterious. The touchstones for Belong used to be Fennesz, Flying Saucer Attack, and My Bloody Valentine, a fairly succinct, ragtag bunch of large canvas audio sculptors. For these new recordings, those influences stick around, but share the spotlight with a more disparate bunch.
As “Come See” barrels out of the gate, the immediately noticeable difference is the driving rhythm section. Wet, echoed motorik beats and insistent basslines push most of this music into mid or uptempo territory. It’s difficult to discern what is being played by guitar and what is being played by synthesizers, but the outlines and edges of synth chords are much more prevalent this time around. Unlike in the past when their melodies were marked by smooth shifts across continua, here there are frequently discrete intervals between the notes or chords. This discreteness coupled with patient sustain produces a monolithic quality, giving weight to light sounds, and keeps their music sounding colossal despite the huge change in methods. The dense mix balances opposing movements, sounding both poppy and abstract, ghostly and physical, otherworldly and personal.
For a piece of work which combines sound in such unique and distinct ways, the feel and timbre of the music will be familiar to most longtime underground music fans. The speedier numbers get into a groove and stick with it amid cacophony in an ornery but blissful way reminiscent of early Stereolab (“Come See”). The stubborn, straight ahead arrangements, whether paced quickly (“Never Came Close”) or slowly (“Very Careful”), couple with bleak tonality to explore the same punishing emotional terrain as Joy Division. But more than anything, every track on this album has a hazy, dull-ache melodicism which feels like the muted, under-glass productions The Cure specialized in during the early 80’s (particularly on Faith and “Charlotte Sometimes”). The loping bass line and over the top synth playing on “A Walk” seems to confirm this homage, and drives home the damaged melancholy which is prevalent across the entire album.
After the style changes sink in, perhaps the biggest surprise here is the quality of the singing. Even as it exists in a fairly obscured form, its wispy sighs provide a great counterpoint and tonal middle ground between the widely divergent low end of the rhythm section and the airy high end of the guitar and synth washes. Though what is being sung is usually anybody’s guess, when all is said and done, Common Era is remarkable for a variety of reasons that transcend textual directness. It defies expectations in ways most musicians don’t even conceive, let alone attempt. It carves out a sound world that is counterintuitive, but affecting. And at the broadest level, it assembles disparate elements into a common esthetic, successfully fucking with our ideas of time and history, and sounding like a primitive relic that could only come from the future.