Here is an ashamed thing I am: I live in the same state as SubRosa, within a 35 minute train ride, probably…maybe some city buses and walking… You get the point. I live within easy seeing distance of this band. Easy experiencing distance. Easy “hey, let’s just go check them out, see what the fuss is all about” distance.
This is not a normal situation for a metal fan in Utah. Not that there aren’t good-to-great metal bands wandering around here, but rarely if ever has a Utah metal band been so revered in the metal press as SubRosa. Let alone a metal band that is, to my ears, so fantastic.
So it is absolutely unacceptable that I, a metalhead, a metal reviewer, a metal thinker, should not even have heard this band until I hit “play” on their new record, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages. If I said I just never got around to it, that I have been busy, it would be true, and would paint me as a complete idiot. I have had a busy decade, but for the love of all that is dark and gorgeous and gravitational, Chris: get out the damned house and headbang now and then, hey kid?
But enough about the asshole writing this; what of the music?
It is a funeral bouquet, steel and blood; potted in granite. It is a confident drawing composed of sumptuous curves boldly and satisfyingly depicting the decay of a soul. It is the last sigh of a death welcome and deserved. It is funeral dirges, lovely voices, disturbing strings, dissonant harmonies, anger and pain and, above all, heavier than all the guilt in hell.
So, let’s say you are sad and fat and useless like me, and are therefore grossly unware of this band’s sound. What should you know?
I was never much of a goth fan, but there were always moments I appreciated. SubRosa has essentially taken these moments and melded them with sludgy funeral doom to create a sound that is at once both and neither. Composed of guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Vernon, dual violinists/vocalists Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack, bassist Levi Hanna and drummer Andy Patterson, the band is non-traditionally staffed, and creates non-traditional – but potent –music.
The generally cleanly sung lead vocals of Vernon are exactly dis-ostentatious – and all the more moving for it. She often reminds me of PJ Harvey in that she manages to sound accusatory, desperate and dangerous without going over the top. And she avoids vibrato and showboating, choosing instead to let her sinister tone do the threatening. Though I am not terribly into cleanliness, hers is a voice that demands respect.
The oddness of the dual violins wielded by Pendleton and Pack are not, as you might assume, a gimmick. They are a necessary architectural piece that lifts the melodies in a crushingly human way. They generally flit above the vocal lines, accentuating melody or adding a countermelody, but will also deliver off-key dissonance to prevent things from becoming merely lush.
Below all this are the simple, well-conceived heavy metal sludgings of Hanna and Patterson. Combined with Vernon’s guitar, their power is in their patience. They have an intuitive feel for the moods the band are creating and never crash into the pieces unwittingly. Time and again the band becomes an epic, almost Melvinian singularity of purpose and direction.
These players’ efforts give rise to compositions that exist almost as evolutionary responses to a poisonous environment; natural, dangerous and alive. The album opens with “Despair is a Siren” and its quiet buildup reminiscent of a Trent Reznor track, the programming replaced by plucked violins. When the heavy hits, it obliterates, the singing never wavering but becoming more and more insistent. It is a slow, volcanic mountain of a song, erupting and simmering and erupting for ten minutes, then changing into a joyfully painful, almost Jesu-esque climax.
“Wounds of the Warden” starts with the rhythm section grooving away, sliding its heft around like a living stone sculpture of an anaconda. When the guitars and violins hit the beast grows wings and proceeds to light the world on fire. The occasional harmonized vocals are shiver-inducing in counterpoint to the sludge. One of my favorite effects the violins create is the equivalent of Soundgarden’s dueling-guitars break in the apex of their song “Ugly Truth.” The dainty strings make some violent music and create truly compelling atmospherics. It really does make my heart soar. No mean feat.
The album juggers its naught in this fashion, halting only briefly for a folkish break with “Il Cappio.” The capper is “Troubled Cells,” another triumphantly dismal piece that recalls the sweet/painful nature of Jesu – a fittingly dark and lovely end to a dark and lovely record.
I could write more words than you would have any interest in reading praising this record, but if I haven’t convinced you that For This We Fought the Battle of Ages is worth your time and money by now they would be wasted twice over. The bottom line is that this album and this band belong in your devices, on your shelves, in your ears and future memories.
And I, for all that I am a busy, broken old man, belong at their local shows. I am such a lump.