Reigns, The Widow Blades

Reigns, The Widow Blades

It’s extremely difficult to make music that’s genuinely, truly scary. In fact, I’d postulate that it’s harder to make frightening, menacing music that’s effective and well-done than it is to make, say, insanely catchy, cheery pop music that just makes you want to grin; they’re two ends of the same scale, really, but doing the former is far more complicated than doing the latter.

It’s all about the failure, in the end. If you set out to make a shiny, sweet, bouncy pop song that’ll get stuck in people’s heads and don’t pull it off, well, you’ve most likely still got a song that’s smiley and bright, just like you were hoping it’d be. If you set out to make a creepy-ass, dark as hell song that’ll give people nightmares and make ’em twitch and don’t pull it off, you’re more likely to look like a joke.

Take all those alternametal bands who wear masks and “crazy” costumes, for example — regardless of what you think of the music, are they scary? Nope, not a bit. They’re just dudes in goofy masks and costumes playing heavy, detuned pseudo-metal. And yet, when they started out, odds are they really wanted to scare people and thought they were doing it right. No dice; they just look dumb and gimmicky. Complete scariness fail, folks, because it is just flat-out harder to make something genuinely scary than it is to make it catchy.

All of which is to explain why Reigns flatten me so completely. The duo (who go only by “Operative A” and “Operative B,” naturally) nonchalantly dropped 2009’s The House on the Causeway, a dark, murky, low-key chunk of post-rock that’s about the bleakest, most chilling thing I’d heard in several years, since the pAper chAse’s God Bless Your Black Heart. It was slow-moving and stately, intelligent as hell, and amazingly atmospheric, especially “single” (to use the term loosely) “Everything Beyond These Walls Has Been Razed.”

Fast-forward to now, and the pair has a new full-length, The Widow Blades, which essentially picks up right where House left off. They step methodically, carefully through 11 tracks of ineffably dark, downward-slipping post-rock that melds Slint with pre-Phil Collins-era Genesis, all with delicate layers of haunting, deliberately-placed sounds and distanced, deep-as-a-well, half-muttered vocals.

More than anything, Reigns makes me think of fellow Brits The Beta Band; both groups seamlessly merge electronic sounds and “real” instrumentation, and the Operatives’ vocals (Operative A or Operative B? I’ve got no clue who does what) are like TBB’s Steve Mason on some seriously mind-slowing medications. Think “Dr. Baker,” and you won’t be too far from Reigns’ vocal sound.

Opening instrumental “Over Tone Gulley” is delicate and funereal, almost like The Exorcist‘s “Tubular Bells” at points — it’s foreboding but still extremely beautiful in a fragile, almost crystalline way, like the theme music to some quiet, thoughtful, disturbing thriller noone’s made yet, the kind that creeps you out for weeks without a bit of gore or scary monsters.

When the vocals come in, though, on “Hybrium Sulphate,” they only serve to make things more intriguing, the song meandering along over beds of feedback and “twinkling” keys as the singer matter-of-factly describes what will happen to you should you come into contact with — or are deliberately poisoned with — this mysterious substance (which, I should note, may not exist in reality). Then it steadily builds to a frenzied, desperate climax before collapsing back down into those twinkling, sparkling keys.

“The Diagram” is almost gamelan-like; chiming and circular-sounding, murky and strange, with vocals replaced by repeated samples from what sound like old sci-fi television serials. Then there’s “Four and a Half Minutes Missing,” which ticks menacingly along, all dark atmosphere, a sliding, down-low bassline, and flat, somber vocals.

The disc’s high point, musically speaking, is “I Will Burn For This,” a prettier track that’s honestly more chilling and grim than the preceding songs despite the beauty. It’s a peek inside the mind of an amnesiac killer who murdered someone but can’t remember doing it, but that’s not the scary part, really — it’s that the “protagonist”‘s first thought seems to be that they must have hurt someone, confirming later on that they’ve killer or hurt someone previously: “This time I will burn / I will burn for this.” The protagonist’s done this before and gotten away with it.

“Horse Murders” is a close second in its methodical horror, first painting a picture of a viciously destroyed animal and then making the quiet accusation: “A child could never do this / A woman could never do this / An animal could never do this / Only a man.” Things get sunnier on the woozy, drifting “Green Butter” and the almost folky, Zeppelin-sounding “They Likes to Sleep Soft,” but even then there’s still a surreal, “is something actually wrong?” vibe floating through.

“Plainsong” is one of the more “normal”-sounding tracks on The Widow Blades, with those deep vocals rumbling like a slightly British version of Johnny Cash as the band rolls through a backwoodsy, rural-sounding chunk of country-folk bleakness; it’s like “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” minus any forced cheerfulness.

The album seemingly moves to a gentle close, first with “Vessels,” which marries glitchy record skips to fragile, sparkling tones that sound like they could’ve been made by a hammer dulcimer or children’s music box, and then with “The Mounds,” which pulls a bait-and-switch, floating on hazy feedback before a creepy, jazzy, up-and-down melody line winds outward. And suddenly, you remember, yeah, that isn’t supposed to be sweet or gentle at all, but rather foreboding and mysterious.

The moral of this story? The best kind of fear’s not the kind evoked by costumes and “scary” shrieking vocals about monsters — it’s the kind that’s subtle and impossible to predict, the kind that steps up beside you and smiles quietly just as you realize what you’re looking at. Or, in the case of The Widow Blades, what you’re listening to.

BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Thursday, November 3rd, 2011. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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