Obsidian Visions/Shadowed Lands by Abronia

Release date: June 6, 2017
Label: Water Wing Records

It’s a curious fact that for all the experimentation the bands we cover profess to, their choice of instruments rarely veers beyond the voice/guitar/drums triumvirate. OK, so there might be a keyboard. Y’know, off to the side. Why is this? Some atavistic need to maintain the old ways, or simply that the vast range of instruments available beyond the comfortable flicker of the rock music campfire need a little more than half an hour’s practice to get a half decent sound out of? It’s not for me to say.

What it does mean, though, is that any band who manages to step beyond these boundaries immediately adds a different flavour, a different voice, to their music. The finest performance I ever saw from Sunn0))), for example, was not when they played the loudest or lowest but when they pulled the volume back and allowed trombonist Steve Moore to add a few plaintive calls into their void of feedback. This use of the brass section as a wailing chorus makes another welcome appearance here, albeit in the form of a saxophone, on the debut album from Portland’s Abronia.

The most immediate touchpoint for this record is PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, another album which turned to brass to add a less-usual but wonderfully strident voice to its palette. However, where Hope Six maintained an English feel, full of stomping boots and social conscience, Obsidian Visions/Shadowed Lands blows in like a desert wind, complete with bruising skies and flashes of lightning. Tinges of psychedelia lurk at its edges, out in the shadow of the buttes, where hippy hermits still cling to their faded photographs of Grace Slick and Janis Joplin.

Album opener ‘The Great Divide’ pretty much sums up this description with gently twanging, Earth-like guitar stretching out into a furious blast of feedback and howling horns before settling down into a woozy march that would feel right at home amongst the prescription grooves of Spiritualized. You can feel the cacti nodding, their iridescent blooms firing strange pollen into the air. Vocals, when they finally appear on second track ‘Shala’, are equally eerie and shamanic with ululations and strange moans as often as intelligible words.

Strangely, the track that now stands out for me was one I didn’t take to on my initial listen. ‘Glass Butte Retribution’, the thirty-five minute album’s penultimate piece, drops into a glowering, funereal sweat lodge ritual as the band’s single marching drum beats out a feverish heartbeat and Keelin Mayer, vocalist and saxophonist, barks out a Nico-esque elegy that seems to come from some other place entirely. What initially felt atonal and jarring is now hauntingly gothic, in the sense that it is smeared with malevolence more than mascara, and immediately sets Abronia apart from the feel-good stoner-rock cliches that music like this could so easily stumble into. After this, the bright stabs of saxophone and clashing guitars that make up the meat of closing track ‘Waning Wand’ feel like sweet wind on the face, cold water on fraying lips. The lullaby vocal refrains does exactly what lullabies should do; soothe and relax but equally hold a memory of what they are being invoked against, a memory of lingering fears.

That I’m not often a huge fan of what’s broadly referred to as Americana and yet think this is a startlingly good record shows how much of a stand-out album it really is. It’s taken a long-walked trail and made something new of it, yet maintained exactly what it is that made the trail fund to travel. I’ve been travelling it a lot these past few days.

I hope you’ll join me.

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