Time Well by CloakroomRelease date: August 18, 2017
Label: Relapse Records
Whenever people write about Cloakroom the focus often falls upon, ‘The Region’, the part rural, part industrial part of Northwest Indiana that sounds like a place you’d want to steer clear of in a Stephen King novel. When they started out the trio worked at a factory there and despite now being signed to Relapse Records they’ve opted not to head for the city, instead building themselves a studio from scratch not far from where they started out. There’s something about the area that seems to have seeped into the band’s DNA and it’s tempting to speculate how the rural/industrial duality of the geography has molded them: their slow paced, shoegaze inflected heavy alt-rock has a blue collar, hand crafted character to it while the lyrics, when not drifting off into sci-fi and apocalyptic visions, have a tendency to get lost in the awe and mysticism of nature.
Or maybe that’s just a nice, neat narrative to impose on them. The blue collar part checks out at least – Cloakroom had a hand in every element of putting together Time Well and it has the studied air of a record that’s been lived in rather than a quick in and out recording job. The playbook from debut Further Out is, for the most part, still the same, but there’s a richness to the compositions that suggest they’ve taken their time with this one. They’re certainly accustomed to a low pace: when they play heavy it’s like slowcore band playing with a doom band’s equipment, like an all stoner band tribute album to Low, with all proceeds going to the Hospice for the Terminally Bummed Out. ‘Big World’ has a truly crushing guitar tone, the kind of fuzz you could take a bath in and come out cleansed, but singer/guitarist Doyle Martin’s sad eyed vocals come across like Eeyore’s more sanguine cousin, sinking into that beautiful cacophony like a body into a hammock. “Take me outside show me what I’ve been missing / people never fail to entertain my sour disposition,” he sighs while the racket rumbles on, colossal and vulnerable. There’s is a guitar solo of sorts but it doesn’t so much soar as careen in slow motion. In this mode they’ve mastered sounding both massive and understated.
The first section of the record is packed with similarly heavy fare, with songs like ‘Seedless Star’ and ‘Concrete Gallery’ clearly owing a debt to 90s alt-rock misfits Failure or Hum (whose singer Matt Talbot did the vocals on earlier b-side ‘Dream Warden’) with their more overtly emo edges muted. The volume comes down a little later in the record before returning at the end for the droning, almost abstract ‘52hz Whale; and closer ‘The Passenger’, which sounds like Jesu’s collaboration with Mark Kozalek would have if it had happened back in his Red House Painters days, full of magisterial distortion and melancholic vocal melodies.
But not all of their quieter numbers hit the mark, and like a sheet of tarpaulin collecting rain Time Well sags a little in the middle. ‘Sickle Moon Blues’ is a little too clay footed for it’s own good and the leaden cover of ‘Hymnal’, a Lutheran hymn once covered by Johnny Cash in his religious songbook phase, seems a strange inclusion. Perhaps there’s a little atheist bias in that assessment but I’m not sure what Cloakroom’s style brings to it. Their problem in moments like these is that their songs can sometimes breeze by with a really nice sound but little in it to grab the interest and make them memorable.
They can get away with though through sheer virtue of it being such a good sound. ‘I Asked The Sun To Let Us Go’ continues the more subdued vibe with acoustic guitars and skeletal country-esque guitar lines and it almost gets sucked into those two songs plodding vortex. But it’s a superior piece of songwriting that just about achieves escape velocity. It’s spectral Americana nods towards the work of Jason Molina, an artist they’ve covered previously. He too wrote about the slightly grim factory-strewn landscape of this part of America and you can sense a sort of kinship between them across the years even if stylistically they share only a little.
The beautiful drift of the title track represents pick of their less crunching work, a beautiful layering of sonic textures punctuated by momentary pauses that let the air out for just a moment. Martin’s serene repetition of “..in the after all..” glides through a gorgeous, serene coda that stretches on for some time and yet feels almost too short. It’s one of those phrases that means little in isolation but coming from the mouth of a good singer sounds ripe with portent. What is the after all? It’s when all is said and done, at the end of the day and all those other cliches. It’s what is after everything that isn’t and all the hot air that surrounds it drifts away and leaves only what is. Cloakroom sing like they’ve made peace with it, but their words suggest an ongoing process, the still waters above and the undertow beneath.
Which is a neat summation of Time Well. The lyrics pendulum between resignation and weary defiance, filled with both mysticism and science, of natural beauty and concrete halls, while both the shoegazey mass of guitars and the more delicate, somber melodic haze are thick enough to shelter beneath. For all it’s desolation and slouching sadness there’s an comforting core to Cloakroom’s music, so content it is in its sorrow – it’s like a consoling hand on your shoulder and a dose of bittersweet reassurance: “it’s not gonna be ok, but that’s alright.”