February 4, 2013

Undersmile - Narwhal

Guest review by Eric Yanyo from Valley of Steel.

Artwork by Anthony Roberts.

I find myself struggling for the words to describe this album. Since “awesome” has gotten to be so overused that it no longer has the effect it once did, and since “terrible” and “awful” have both come to imply something different, I need to find a different way to communicate how I really feel about what I am hearing. In its entirety (which is absolutely the best way to appreciate this particular work of art), Narwhal is definitely impressive, both awe-inspiring and dreadful.

If you’ve heard either of the band’s prior releases — their first EP or the more recent split with Caretaker (both of which are also available on Bandcamp, by the way) — then you’ll have some small idea what to expect: crunchy guitars, feedback, misery, rumbly bass, minimal drumming, dreary vocals that nearly sound entirely lifeless.

Yes, you’ll find all of that here, but it’s all been amplified to an exponentially higher degree. The guitar and bass riffs stomp all over your ears like some atomically-enhanced “evil lizard” strolling down the streets of your city.

The drumming is very thunderous, yet very deliberately done. One of my favorite parts of the album would be the intro and outro to “Qaanaaq” (which is named for a small settlement in northern Greenland, where, by the way, the native population often hunt narwhals). The song starts out quite haltingly, with the guitars and vocals following the rhythms on the drums, all of it punctuated frequently by sudden silences. Perhaps taking a cue from its palindromic title, the song’s ending mirrors its beginning, but throughout the duration in between, the whole band comes across sounding very oppressive and all-encompassing (like an arctic winter, or perhaps representative of the ocean so frequently referred to in the lyrics).

The opening of “Verdigris” shows an interesting side of the band’s dual frontwomen (guitarists Hel Sterne and Taz Corona-Brown): they frequently use a fairly deadpan vocal delivery, practically expressionless, and dissonant and aharmonious when the two combine; however, in this particular moment they seem almost melodic. Additionally, these surprising hints of pleasant-sounding harmony creep into a few other moments throughout the album: thrice near the middle of “Milk” one of the ladies is singing a particular note but then bends ever-so-slightly to a different pitch, producing what almost seems like a (heretofore unheard of) major-key interval.

Furthermore, there is a sort of lovely harmony that occurs about a quarter of the way through “Myra” — and then again somewhere past the three-quarter mark — although both times this leads straight into expressions of incredible suffering and anguish. (The second time this happens, the screams are so blood-curdling, it’s likely to make one wonder whether they had been induced by actual physical pain.

The vocal parts — discordant and aharmonious though they may be — often give the impression of having a third or fourth part added in, making me wonder whether the gentlemen of the band (bassist Olly Corona-Brown and drummer Tom McKibbin) might have contributed some uncredited additional vocals in certain places, or if the others were perhaps just overdubbed. In any case, the layers of voices often can build to the point where they threaten to overwhelm the listener with fright — such as some of the instances of yelling that take place in “Mandrill,” particularly right at the end of the song.

Which brings me back to my original point: Narwhal could absolutely be considered a terrible, awful, and awesome album — but regardless of what you want to call it, it’s quite an impressive and imposing work that deserves, and demands, your attention.

[Go to the post to view the Bandcamp player]

Note: This review is adapted from the original published here.

  1. dense,complexe et plusieurs écoutes sont nécessaires pour digérer ce monstre superbe et protéiforme

  2. I couldn't get into this the first time I listened to it, but your review has inspired me to take a second listen.

    1. Like Yves alludes to above (at least according to Google translate :)) it's dense and complex and requires multiple listen before it fully sinks in.

      Did you like it more second time around?

    2. So I listened to it again, and it really is an amazing album. The part of The Unthinkable were the vocalists finally break out of their shells is something special.

      I then continued with Locrian's The Crystal World. An evening of not so easy listening.

  3. Where's the low end?

    1. Wut? Listening to right now - it's got plenty of low end.