The Leaf Label
he only thing that fits into a pigeonhole is a pigeon,” my colleague told me last week. I’m not really sure what that means, but if it means that labels aren’t always helpful in describing things such as music, then he was right. Efterklang are post-rock, so they say. The simple definition of post-rock, courtesy of Wikipedia and Simon Reynolds, is “using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes.” That definition works fine for Slint and Mogwai and Godspeed and the like, but “rock instrumentation” must surely include guitars, and there’s barely a hint of guitar on Parades—well, there is a little acoustic at the end, but that might even be a banjo. (Rock was not built on the power of the banjo.) Besides, any guitars that are here are swamped by the more prominent use of about four hundred other instruments, various wind or stringed-objects, and just as many unidentifiable creations of robot, machine, or computer. Do violins and wind chimes and oboes and mechanical seagulls count as rock instrumentation?
So let’s leave labels aside just now and just focus on the music. Parades is an exquisite sounding record, with so much intricate sonic detail that it demands a good pair of headphones. Initially I wondered whether it might suffer from the same problem as Björk’s Volta—being beautifully rich in sound, but lacking in things like melody. Luckily, it’s a real grower and, after a while, the post-rock tag actually does make some kind of sense. Parades has the complex time-signatures and shifting movements of Slint; it has the genuine dynamic force of moving from really quiet to really loud, like Mogwai; it has the building melodrama of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It just doesn’t have the guitars.
Instead, listen to the voices in your headphones. Efterklang use the hushed lead vocals of Thomas Sjöberg or Linda Drejer Bonde, sometimes together, as well as all-male and all-female choruses, and the grand orchestration of Sigur Ros. Of all the memorable moments on the album—and it is an album of moments, rather than tunes—one of the most affecting is on “Blowing Lungs Like Bubbles.” Over shuffling brushes, a morose accordion, and a quivering violin, a whispered lead vocal is balanced by an unbearably sad, gentle wail by another singer who seems to be on the verge of a breakdown. It doesn’t last long, thankfully, because it’s heartbreaking. Although Sjöberg and Bonde do appear to be singing in English, it’s never clear enough to decipher the story behind each song. More often, the voices are used like another instrument, as in the intro to “Illuminant” where multiple choruses of aahing and yawning swell together into a massive, rumbling wave before giving way to quietly tinkling piano and the promise of another swell. Frequently I imagine these quiet periods are played by small animals, like mice, let loose over the piano top.
Similarly, “Horseback Tenors” begins with little birds hopping all over the strings. Then the chorus joins in and the reclaimed string section builds into an epic mid-section, which becomes even more epic when the brass players awaken and a marching beat arrives, melding everything into a joyous, striding finale. Except it’s not a finale because it fades and disintegrates and is parachuted back to earth by a foghorn bassline. This is what saves Parades from being a predictable journey where every rise and fall is anticipated. It really has to be played as a 49-minute album in full because the peaks and troughs are distributed across that timeline, not the timeline of each individual track. “Frida Found a Friend” peaks after three minutes of meandering, and then spends a minute and a half recovering from the shock. Quieter periods may last 20 seconds or four minutes, building momentum or easing tension, climaxing or not and then building again.
For the actual finale, closer “Cutting Ice to Snow” starts with Sjöberg and a backing vocalist imitating whalesong so slowly that you have to remember to breathe before the album dies. It’s rejuvenated by the high-end of a piano and that aforementioned banjo, which conspire to finish the album with a sense of contented resolution. Parades, both restrained and wildly dramatic, gently touching and warmly enveloping, is not a record that sits comfortably with convenient labels. Instead, let’s just say that it’s as compelling as a winding ride through an unexplored mountain range: with scenery of size, light and dark skies, and a map that no one can read.
Reviewed by: Ally Brown
Reviewed on: 2007-10-16