Waning Hymns arrives with a great deal of promise for those in the mood for a doomy dirge: the religiously-tinged name, of both band and record, the obscure folk-horror artwork, the fact that this 40-minute album contains a mere four tracks.
And in many ways, it delivers. Opening track ‘Advaita’ inches into life with funereal slowness and gloom, its ominous musical motifs staggering and stomping over droning foundations, and the vocals, when they come in, aren’t so much singing as they are shamanic incanting. Here, you might think, is the house band one might expect to find at the party in Eyes Wide Shut.
But as things progress it becomes evident that a likely hallmark of Waning Hymns is unpredictability rather than the kind of endless layers of repetition one tends to expect from the drone genre. Although it retains the slow, thunderous quality, a songwriterly sensibility soon emerges, with songs not merely reiterating riffs and patterns but instead journeying through linked passages that display a great many more ideas than the number of tracks might indicate. There’s an attention to melody, ornamentation and texture that is distinct to post-rock. The impressiveness of Waning Hymns is in a musicianship that isn’t defined by showy technical aptitude or bludgeoning heaviness, but by a seeming telepathy, with all the players aware of their interlocking parts in the winding route each song takes from its opening to its close.
The strongest evidence of this is on the sprawling ‘Volition’, its labyrinthine structure having less in common with the likes of Earth than it does with more latterday Godspeed You! Black Emperor releases. It’s the prickly guitar edging the piece into a kind of lolloping, off-kilter crescendo that one imagines could induce a kind of ecstasy in the right kind of live setting.
If all this praise is sounding a little too fulsome, there is a but. Michael Sauder’s vocals are so clean and clear – with backing harmonies, reverb and doubling used only intermittently – that it feels at odds with the weird, psychedelic headiness going on around him. It also leaves lyrics like ‘Is this culture or is this disease / or perhaps a side effect from too many screens?’ starkly audible. One can’t avoid the suspicion that on-the-nose social commentary such as this would be forgivable if more muffled in the mix, but front and centre it shears the compositions of their mystery. Nowhere is this more apparent than in closing track ‘Century of the Self’ where the song diverts into an overwrought spoken word scree on the ills of consumerism.
And yet, this final track also contains the undoubted highlight of Waning Hymns. When the song takes off it does so like an icy rocket, a scratchy guitar phrase first agitating and then overwhelming the music, dragging the listener in an entirely unexpected direction, the whole thing concluding with a pair of wintry guitar melodies chasing one another hypnotically.
It’s a testament to the landscapes Geist & The Sacred Ensemble are able to conjure into existence through mere music and how vivid and beguiling they can be. Wherever the future takes them, this alone makes them worthy of your attention.
Release Date: 31/07/2020
Record Label: Scry Recordings
Standout tracks: Advaita, Century of the Self
Suggested Further Listening: Earth – The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull (2008), Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (2012), Boris – Akuma no Uta (2003)