As a way of complimenting an unusually long piece of music, it has become almost cliched to say that the time passes without really noticing it, that the music seems shorter than the clock tells you it is. At least in the case of rock and metal, that kind of description may also be intended to break down a barrier to entry, to induce people to listen who otherwise might be deterred by the demands on their time.
But promises of losing track of time are often exaggerated. Hell, even in making my own way through very long tracks that I ultimately enjoy, I sometimes find myself checking the player to see where I am, and how many minutes are left. Life is too full of distractions, and the pestering voice in the back of your head that says you should be doing something else, even if you don’t know what, can often be hard to ignore.
So, we take such promises with a grain of salt, and with good reason, but I’ll still promise you this: time really does seem to vanish in listening to “Silver Screens“, the 19 1/2 minute title track to the new fourth album by the unusual Australian funeral death-doom band Ivan. And the same phenomenon happens again and again over the course of the next three tracks. Getting lost in them is very easy, because they are so incredibly absorbing in so many ways, and so surprising in how they unfold.
You’ll learn that for yourselves today, because we’re premiering a full stream of the album in advance of its June 19 release by Solitude Productions.
Ivan really are unusual. They bring to the table the usual tropes of the genre summarized above — the slow pacing, the crushing heaviness, the wounded death growls, the soul-stricken melodies — but they bring so much more than that, incorporating instrumental ingredients and musical styles that are usually foreign to that simplified genre description, with stunning results. And Silver Screens is not merely a vivid example of that iconoclasm, but the pinnacle of those achievements in the band’s career so far.
Ivan took a chance by putting that 19 1/2 minute title track right at the beginning of the album, almost like throwing down a challenge. Maybe they took an equal risk in making that song the album’s first (and only) single leading up to the record’s release. The length is intimidating. But the music is spectacular. So it was a risk worth taking.
“Silver Screens” is almost like a manifestation of warring emotions, or a musical call-and-response. It changes dramatically, again and again, presenting a variation of sequences that then join together.
One of those sequences, which begins the song, is built around a slow, distorted, moaning riff that’s abrasive and unsettling, along with slow, crushing drum beats and long, anguished roars and shrieks. Seething leads appear and disappear, seemingly full of pain. That sequence includes a variation in both the riff and the drum pattern which together make the music sound more feverish, even without materially increasing its speed, and the lead guitar (which still appears and disappears) also sounds more wailing and unhinged, and the vocals more throat-shredding and tormented.
The second sequence represents an enormous surprise. A musician might know what makes these sounds. I do not. It sounds like a mix of Rhodes piano, theremin, melotron, and xylophone, a reverberating mix of quavering and pinging tones, all accompanied by the warm hum of the bass and gunshot snare cracks, joined by a fluid, dreamlike, romantic violin melody (which to these ears resembles a saxophone) that sounds like the remembrance of pleasure long lost, and the yearning for its return. Warmth and brightness radiate from this sequence, and it becomes mesmerizing. But there is a response to this call.
Heavy chords and more punishing drum blows join in, and the harsh roars reappear, yet they seem to give the music a sense of solemn grandeur rather than smothering those beautiful sounds in a blanket of gloom, and the effect is transportive. As the violin rises and soars like a sunrise, it’s as if the beauty and warmth are fighting to survive within a mounting storm of challenge and turmoil.
The music does revert to the kind of devastating heaviness with which the song began, as the drums deliver punishing blows, the stringed instruments pummel and gouge, a voice cries out in bleeding, tortured tones, and the leads wail again like tormented ghosts. And then that violin and keyboard sequence reappears and resumes, again joined by the heaviness, again bringing harshness and grandeur. At the end, the music segues into intense, shining celestial tones.
And yes, the time has passed before you know it.
The same kind of time loss occurs again in “The Winds Will Scream“, which at nearly 12 minutes is still a long track, but almost brief in comparison to that imposing opener. It includes its own contrasts, but with a different effect. A hypnotizing guitar instrumental backed by ambient shimmer opens the song, but the music soon shifts into slow drum thunder and scarring vocals, into plundering chords, beleaguered leads, and the sorcerous wail of the violin. Here, the music creates a feeling of tension intertwined with sorrow, a deep sense of isolation and grief, very human in its feeling of misery rather than mystical.
The guitar from the opening returns, pouring out its mourning, this time joined by a weeping violin and those xylophone tones, which this time sound more subdued. The bass and drum rhythm slows even more, as the guitar returns against a backdrop of low-frequency vibrations. The violin also returns, beautifully soulful and sad.
And then the heaviness returns, the guitar moaning, the voice howling and screaming in its misery. The violin joins in, tugging at the listener’s heartstrings, and the combination of all the instruments makes this musical lamentation even more deeply penetrating, intense, and immersive. It’s less of a call-and-response than a union of forces that are all expressing anguish in different ways.
The track sequence leads the songs to become increasingly shorter as you move through the album, and the moods change as well, pointing in brighter directions. “Underneath the Tapestry” (roughly seven minutes in length) presents quavering keyboard tones, xylophone pings, vibrant drum progressions, and a murmuring bass, eventually joined by a languid and seductive guitar melody — a kind of jazz fusion piece that’s again like a warm embrace. Craggy, crushing guitar tones and skull-splitting drum blows do arrive, along with harrowing growls and a ringing tremolo’d guitar. This all makes the music more powerful, and head-moving, but again, the heaviness doesn’t vanquish the song’s spring-like beauty, but rather provides a vivid accent — and perhaps a shadow of peril.
And to close, there is “Crystalline“, at almost six minutes in length. Here, potent rhythmic bursts punctuate a gorgeous tapestry of violin, keyboards, and guitar that again brings to mind visions of spring, of sun-dappled streams beneath woodland canopies. The music lifts the heart, nourishes the soul, beguiles the mind, casts away your cares. This track also has other sequences, one that consists of darting violin strings and a semblance of heavenly choirs singing in joy, backed by a lively rhythmic pulse, as well as a spritely and sparkling “xylophone” instrumental, which closes the song (and the album). It sounds like the playing of an old music box, the dearest possession of a child.
The album is a marvel, and has quickly become one of my favorite discoveries of 2020. I strongly encourage you to set aside about 45 minutes and experience this album straight through. It won’t seem like 45 minutes.
The album’s cover art was created by the band’s friend Ashley Williams, who, as the band explain, “has expressed through acrylics the spirit of the album, representing the sound through the color palettes which were envisioned whilst writing and recording Silver Screens“.
Solitude Productions is releasing it in a digipack CD edition, and digitally.