MAKE – Axis (01 November 2012, Black Iron Records)
Hellooooooooo out there, readers! I vaguely remember that I used to do this thing where I’d listen to music, and then write about it, and then you’d read it and listen to the music too, and then everyone was happy. I don’t know why I haven’t been doing much of that recently — I guess a variety of reasons which could pretty much be summed up as “life getting in the way” — but I do want to get back into the habit.
Today let’s talk about this EP that was released by the North Carolinian post-atmospheric-ambient-blackish-doomy band MAKE back at the beginning of this month. I told you it would be coming (here and here) and if you’ve been reading my stuff for a while you already know how much I fawned over their debut LP Trephine (reviewed here).
Somehow during the course of all of that, I neglected to share the preview video for the EP — for which I apologize, but I shall make up for it by adding it here:
Anyway. So the three-song, half-hour-long Axis was released a few weeks ago, as a digital-only offering (for the present time, at least) — and as previously mentioned, this is material that didn’t quite fit with the band’s prior album, or their next album (which is already in progress and, if we’re very lucky, might be ready within the next year or so).
However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that means these tracks are just throwaways, or some rubbish the band swept off the cutting-room floor! No, although it’s certainly true that this trio of songs has a very different feeling from past MAKE material, what you’ll find here is every bit as compelling and intriguing.
At one point recently — I believe it was just before, or around the same time as, the EP’s release — I saw guitarist Scott Endres present the argument on Facebook that Obscured By Clouds was a tragically underrated album. I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t recall the precise wording, but it was something along those lines.
Given that this film soundtrack is, in my personal opinion, quite nearly a perfect album — and in fact, unquestionably one of my top three of all time — I enthusiastically agreed with this sentiment.
However, it wasn’t until a short time later, once I’d downloaded Axis and began listening to the first song — the seventeen-minute title track — that I truly appreciated the significance of that discussion.
The song “Obscured By Clouds” leads off the soundtrack album of the same name, with a gradually crescendoing chord fading in from silence, and then serving as the foundation for a repetitive rhythm in the percussion and bass; upon these relatively constant backing tracks, the guitar weaves bits of melody in and out for the duration of the instrumental piece.
To an extent, the same could be said about “Axis” — a similar-sounding chord fades in and sustains for quite some time, while eventually some drums and bass add layers of groove. The bass is far more prominent here, though, and lends a rather dark and minor-key vibe — actually more closely resembling something like “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” or even “Let There Be More Light” than anything taken from the film La Vallée. Furthermore, in “Obscured By Clouds” the sustained chord remains virtually unchanged for the entire song, while the one that introduces “Axis” undergoes a few slight permutations, eventually working its way to the foreground and insinuating itself into — not exactly what would be considered a melody, but by playing against the bassline, becomes somewhat of a counter-countermelody, if you will.
Another point of contrast between the title track of the Pink Floyd album and that of the MAKE EP is the introduction of dynamics. As implied earlier, once “Obscured By Clouds” has gotten started, it holds a fairly steady course til the end; the bluesy guitar leads come and go but nevertheless remain relatively flat in terms of volume and intensity. On the other hand, “Axis” starts to hint at a “Careful with that Axe, Eugene”-style explosion of energy somewhere around its ninth or tenth minute.
But to better illustrate the gradualness of the overall changes to the dynamic structure (and perhaps, to avoid an utter overload of Pink Floyd comparisons), I’d say the song follows a pattern more similar to Ravel‘s “Bolero” — a repetitiveness that changes so slowly (almost excruciatingly so), that it’s quite a revelation as the end approaches and the the listener suddenly realizes that the music has somehow grown into a monstrous entity bearing little resemblance to how simply and gently it had been at the outset.
Returning to the Obscured By Clouds metaphor (I know, right?), the next track of this EP “Chimera” is to its predecessor “Axis” sort of like Floyd’s “Bridges Burning” is to “Mudmen”; that is to say, each pair of songs shares a similar melody and chord sequence, but “Chimera” and “Bridges Burning” each feature vocals as well as each having a somewhat quicker tempo than their instrumental counterparts.
Significantly shorter, as well — with a running time under seven minutes — “Chimera” nevertheless builds upon the plateau to which “Axis” had already climbed, featuring a similar rhythm section centering around the chuggy distorted guitar sound that had graced the latter parts of the first song. Vocally, we start off with a somewhat distant-sounding hoarse shout, but as the sound continues to build, this mutates into more of a black metal harsh shriek over the second half of the song.
Closing track “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” has approximately the same length as “Chimera” but nearly none of the aggression: this piece (like Obscured By Clouds closing track “Absolutely Curtains”) is chiefly atmospheric and mellow, just some moody bits of sound fading in and out of existence, until eventually disappearing altogether. Over the final minute-and-a-half, all that remains is a little melody plunked on a reverby piano (in unison with some other instrument, perhaps a dulcimer?) — very simple and only repeated a couple times, but incredibly haunting.
With the song’s ethereal nature, the relationship to its title (and in fact, the meaning of the title itself) is left to the listener’s imagination. In a literal sense, sleep can create monsters in the form of imagined phantoms from a nightmare; but here we are concerned instead with the “sleep of reason,” presumably referring to one’s failure (or refusal?) to apply reason or logic, which could end up conjuring a different sort of monster. While the familiar adage asserts that “ignorance is bliss,” to be uninformed and to lack an understanding of the world around you can easily instill a feeling of fear of the unknown, creating “monsters” where in reality there is nothing at all to fear. Perhaps this is the meaning behind the song: a parable, of sorts, warning against inventing enemies or potential sources of peril, where a bit of enlightenment could dispell any shadowy figments.
Listen to Axis here, and you can buy a download of the EP as well — but be sure to check out the packages available for purchase on the Bandcamp page, as there is the opportunity to combine the digital EP with other merchandise at a discount…