We Lost The Sea’s 2015 Departure Songs is an elegy in five cantos – an affirmation of the importance of the desire to drive and explore.
Despite the continuing popularity of the cinematic, orchestral version of Post-Rock popularized by the Montreal collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, few groups have managed to replicate it successfully. The annals of musical history are littered with the carcasses of such works as The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place by Explosions in the Sky , frequently cited as examples of the banal, pretentious trappings of the genre. Departure Songs is not one of those works.
At it’s core, Departure Songs is a concept album – weaving together the theme of heroic, failed expeditions through four stories and five tracks. Compared to GY!BE, it sits somewhere between the eschatological gloom of Yanqui U.X.O. or F#A#Infinity, and the life-affirming beauty of Lift Yr. Skinny Fists. Perhaps a better comparison can be found in Arcade Fire’s Funerals, an album that explores the beauty that can exist even through death.
But Departure Songs doesn’t exist solely as an exploration of historical tragedy. The theme of tragic loss is underpinned the band’s own loss of singer Chris Torpy in early 2013, making the lack of vocals in Departure Songs extra haunting. Perhaps it is this personal connection to the theme that gives it the sensation of true emotional weight that can only be found in the best of post-rock.
Despite the group’s past works Crimea and The Quietest Place On Earth bearing more common blood with the atmospheric sludge metal of groups such as Isis or Neurosis, Departure Songs marks a distinct shift in genetic makeup to the same genus as GY!BE – at some parts, the tracks might be even more minimal or beautiful than GY!BE, such as the spectral chorus at the end of the opening track, A Gallant Gentleman.
The opening track, A Gallant Gentleman, is an exposition of the failed Terra Nova expedition to the south pole, particularly focusing on the actions of Lawrence Oates. They had reached the South Pole on January 12th, 1911, losing the race to be the first to the South Pole to Roald Amundsen by 35 days. Failing to set the record to the poles, the men began a doomed return trip.
Suffering from punishing weather conditions, poor food supply, and the onset of frostbite and scurvy, the party shouldered on. Oates was weakening faster than the others, and their progress was beginning to become too slow to reach the food depots in time. Conscious of the burden he placed on his fellows, in the morning of March 16th, 1912, Oates simply walked out the tent in a -40° blizzard to his death. His body was never found, and the search party erected a cairn and cross, bearing the inscription: “Hereabouts died a very gallant gentleman, Captain L. E. G. Oates, of the Inniskilling Dragoons. In March 1912, returning from the Pole, he walked willingly to his death in a blizzard, to try and save his comrades, beset by hardships.”
Musically the six minute – relatively brief for a post-rock track – song opens with a single guitar searching alone through the cold. The sole tone of the strings rings sadly through three minutes, until a rapid kick drum signals a sudden build up into a crescendo of sound between drums, guitar, and an ethereal chorus like a sudden winter gale, until the moment passes and only the voices are left, like the last whispers of frostbite on a cold winter day.
The next track, Bogatyri, named after the mythical knights of East Slavic legends, honors the sacrifice of three: Valeri Bezpalov, Alexie Ananenko and Boris Baranov, the suicide squad who sacrifices their lives to open the sluice gates in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, preventing a secondary meltdown that would cause even further devastation. With a submerged bassline and eastern guitar rhythms, the track builds up an atmosphere that wouldn’t be out of place on Yanqui U.X.O., before unleashing an absolutely crushing wall of noise, leaving only the trailing, fading noises of guitar tones in its wake.
The Last Dive of David Shaw chronicles the death of Australian diver David Shaw, who died attempting to rescue the body of fellow diver Deon Dreyer. The track opens with the bubbling and respiration of Scuba gear, before beginning another cycle of melancholy guitar and drums followed by a nearly four minute sonic freakout, which fades away again into the real surprise of the track – a short, breathless solo piano passage that floats among the depths.
Now the album enters its final story and final two tracks, altogether making another 32 minutes, or half the album. Challenger Part 1 – Flight, takes up nearly 24 minutes, and is the natural highlight of the entire album, the final reward of the album: even the track lengths themselves have been building up, from the six minute opening track to this apotheosis. It is also only fitting that the story chosen is perhaps the most well known tragic exploration in recent history – and the purest example of the endless brave sacrifices that must be made in the name of progress and exploration.
An opening monologue about sleep inevitably calls to mind flashbacks to GY!BE’s Sleep from Lift Yr. Skinny Fists – a comparison that is not entirely unwarranted. After the monologue, a long drone gives way to a guitar spiraling from the void, until the clanging of guitar drumsticks signals more aggressive guitar tones – which are then switched out for a Cello which screeches like a rocket racing across the sky. . . dropping off into a diminishing guitar solo. Then, as soon as it ended, it begins again, with space age synths swim under guitars and drums counting down alongside a voice counting towards liftoff. And then, the album enters its penultimate, brutal cacophony as the guitars screaming upwards into the sky and explode. . .
After the feast is over; all that is left is the digestif – Challenger Part II – A Swan Song. The ending track mirrors the opening track – out of nothing, a single guitar emerges, soon backed by an extremely quiet set of drums. Just as the track begins to resemble something that could be confused for a track off of Duster’s, the last crescendo picks up, the most quiet and melodic of the entire album so far, fading into the famous challenger speech of Ronald Reagan.
And just for a moment, as it ends, the album ” … slips from the surly bonds of earth …”, and the eulogy is over.
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10
WORTH MULTIPLE LISTENS