Elegies to Lessons Learnt
any things about iLiKETRAiNS will be musical kryptonite to potential listeners. A few people already stopped reading when they found out the name of the band really was "iLiKETRAiNS." Let's add a bit more fuel to the fire of disenchantment; these chaps occasionally dress up like retro railwaymen, most of their songs are about semi-obscure characters or events from history like The Beeching Report and their debut full-length came with a booklet of weighty essays. Here, we have one of the few records where dishing out a grade seems wholly appropriate. I was half expecting to have to sit an exam to digitally unlock the CD.
Right, that should have weeded out a fair number of people. "Too pretentious for me!" they'll cry, as they flounce off into the sunset. But actually, everything mentioned in that opening paragraph is quite brilliant, isn't it? A group with a distinct identity, singing about stuff which is DIFFERENT and ... well, as fresh as a series of dead historical dudes are likely to get. The freebie essays (incidentally, only available with orders from here at present) shouldn't be taken as a patronising swipe at the listeners intelligence, but as both an optional guide and a symbol of how much care has gone into this project. It won't hurt anybody to learn a bit about John Stonehouse, James Hadfield and the rest of the gang.
As you may have already ascertained from that preamble, these gentlemen aren't too interested in any of the cheerful bits of history. That time when the greatest density of cute little bunny rabbits was recorded in a field in Sussex? Doesn't feature. The events which led to the bubonic plague briefly spreading to the North of England? Top billing, my friends. Top billing. As if cocking a further snook to expectations, this opener is delivered at glacial pace. No instant gratification is on offer here.
The only genre properly equipped to pull off this level of seriousness (as previously demonstrated by post-apocalyptic funsters Godspeed? You! Punctuation; Marks") is post-rock. Deploying the time-honoured "quiet bits building to loud bits then maybe going back to quiet bits" method, the TRAiNS crawl and blaze their way through the wreckage of the Fire of London and the Berlin Wall with guitars ringing. In fact, these tones don't really alter all that much—sticking to delay-tinged reverberation for the haunting passages, and stepping on the roaring distortion at the points where it all kicks off. To prevent this becoming overly predictable, the instrumentation is sporadically bolstered by brass and cello, which just about make themselves heard over thunderous bursts of percussion.
Where the band excels is in the delivery of their woe-begotten trudge through the annals of the past. David Martin's vocals are rich with portents, and he clearly seems to be relishing his role as lecturer-in-chief. Much like a cinematic villain, his performances tend to somewhat steal the show. Though this is not, of course, to take anything away from the rest of the group—without whom, Dave would be left sounding very silly indeed.
Elegies to Lessons Learnt is a wonderfully realised album in all areas...except one. The most important one, irritatingly enough. Several tracks suffer from fairly audible clipping—the tell-tale sign of over-compression. Poor old "Spencer Perceval" is most seriously affected, having the drama of his assassination overshadowed by some unseemly buzzing and (unintentional) distortion. The climax of "The Deception" is also a victim, as are the drums at the conclusion of "Remnants of an Army." A quick look at the waveform for "Spencer" reveals the source of these troubles:
That's the right-hand channel fed into Cool Edit Pro. Yes, it's nine minutes squeezed into a small space, so it's bound to look bunched up—but notice how the spikes of sound mush into a squared-off mess around the four minute and seven minute marks. This is where the unpleasantness occurs. Notice too that there's little distinction between the volume level of the supposedly "quiet" opening segment and the later "loud" parts. For music which is trying to thrive on its dynamics, this really isn't good—and it's a similarly sorry tale with the other problem tracks.
This stuff only matters to audiophile music nerds though, right? No, absolutely wrong. It affects anyone with working ears. Somebody dropped a clanger here, be it during the mixing, mastering or engineering process and, for some reason, nobody stepped forward at any stage to say "hang on, this bit sounds pretty duff." Nor is this a case of a lone, faulty CD, because the same clipping can be heard on the separate "Spencer Perceval" single release.
It's a desperate, awful shame. Genuine love and attention has gone into everything else; the cultivation of a unique image, some gorgeous packaging, that meaty essay collection (presumably compiled by the band—they don't seem like the type of freeloaders to cack-handedly lift bits from Wikipedia), but they've fallen at the worst possible hurdle. It's not a complete disaster—the songs are still there, shining proud and (far too) loud—but each listen brings a constant, aggravating reminder of the sloppy production. A fantastic record feels tarnished. It's a bittersweet tale worthy of the next iLiKETRAiNS record, which will hopefully be given the aural showcase it deserves.