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TRIPTYCH INTO DARKNESS (The Icy Cold Records Edition) – Mekong “End of the Word” / Bleib Modern “Afraid to Leave” / Order 89 “L’été des Corbeaux”

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MEKONG – End of the World

Every year there’s at least one record (or twenty) that elicits such a viscerally staggering response in me that it damn near makes me actually, y’know, stagger. 2020’s debut from True Body, Heavenly Rhythms for the Unititiated, was one of those as was/is anything Kill Shelter’s name is attached to with or without Antipole. Now, naturally, given the unholy abundance of riches that floods the flourishing darkwave renaissance across every inch of the spectrum these days, this is not a surprise nor a rare occurrence for any of us, it’s like being hit by a fucking epiphany on a daily basis, but what we’re talking here is that one that strikes just a little deeper, and this year, thus far, that one (or one of the ones) is End of the World from the Portugal-born, Krakow-based Renato Alves’ Mekong project, released on Icy Cold back in May.

Like most such instances of an album stepping out from the crowd and ‘speaking to you’ there’s nothing particularly innovative in song structure or instrumentation or even execution on this record to explain its ‘it’ factor but instead something almost impossibly kinetic and full in both the tracks individually and how they cohere as a whole. If one were to try and explain this mystery of the ‘it’ album in a single word ‘dynamism’ would be a strong (if still inadequate somehow) contender. Oh, and as it surely goes without saying, every track on any such album must be at least interchangeably great as any other. On that metric too End of the World succeeds with what feels an effortless ease. And while we could dicker about whether it’s more or less amazing that one of those albums (and a debut no less) is the work of a one-man band – in our discussion here at SEM the advantages and disadvantages pretty much fought to a draw – the fact that albums of this sort manifest at all is something of a blessing, listening to it making you feel glad to be alive.

Signaling intent with unambiguous confidence, the first track, accurately titled “Awe,” establishes the record’s overall template and its elements: a commanding bass line – a bit heavier than most but as adroit as any – rhythms and runs of astute electric guitar layered in with finesse, as economic or embellished as is called for, a sharp drum track that doesn’t shy away from the spotlight, all of it there to serve a strong, upfront (and in English) vocal in a mix as sonorous and well-produced as any album we at the SEM post-punk desk have heard all year. The dye is cast, the fix is in and as a listener you’re pulled inexorably into the (very assured, really quite wonderful) heart of darkness.

“Going Home” jumps out with the adrenaline pedal pressed to the floor, so bass propulsive the word’s barely adequate, “Industria” leans into the heavy as if it’s plowing brand new updated furrows in Nephilim’s fields, the buoyant “Saving Jesus” is both breakneck and pensive, irreverent and deadly serious, “The Hills” races itself to the finish from the very start, running at a bruising yet precision-cut pace while “Krakow,” lithesome and dark, exudes amidst its casual menace an air of poignance towards Alves’ adopted city.

Because from a certain angle it can be heard as an unrepentant rock album, End of the World is one of those that allows you to indulge in a so-called guilty pleasure guilt-free and right out in the open, bounding about in a fit of brooding ecstasy. Form-wise Mekong has no intention of breaking new ground but rather, recognizing it as the consecrated ground it is, lays nine immaculately designed tracks like some sort of black-edged sonic enneagram, in the process producing, in plain language, a kickass record.

BLEIB MODERN – Afraid to Leave

This is my eleventh year writing for SEM, a not insignificant percentage of that time and effort (35, 40%?) devoted to the “Great Darkwave Explosion of the 21st Century” the genesis of which just happened to coincide with my debut assignment. While, from my perspective, a propitious coincidence beyond measure, having had the (metaphorical but not, really) post-punk desk built around me piece by piece as I sat scribbling didn’t come without its challenges and dilemmas. Among the former has been the feverishly exponential growth of attention-worthy bands and artists, the wave in all its striations having swelled by this point to such a magnitude  it could, if physically manifested, swallow all of the LA basin in a single day. From out of that crazed plethora comes the unsurprising dilemma that can be expressed in some form of an equation involving the factors [hours in a day], [potential human energy] and the infinity symbol with a slash through it which in turn leads to a rather randomized awareness spectrum that leaves the enthusiast, no matter how avid, haunted by what they’re missing, a worry I’d imagine most of you reading this recognize. It also leaves a writer/radio DJ practicing a level of editorial triage he’d much rather avoid.

While, yes, a nice problem to have it’s still a problem, one with no practical solutions only various degrees of preposterous ones (such as not ever sleeping, for example, which I’ve kind of tried and don’t recommend). Among those the sanest and seemingly fairest would be limiting coverage of any particular act to, say, one album review per couple of years or whatever, thereby giving some measure of coverage while spreading the love and keen appreciation as widely as possible. It’s a worthy, utopian idea that crumbles into folly when applied to the likes of Bleib Modern. I mean, sure, the band was covered sufficiently back in 2017 when Antagonism was released (not to mention featuring on one of those NEXT lists prior to that) but as they insist on banging out albums as strong as the March-dropped Afraid to Leave, it’s simply unthinkable that we’d ignore it.

Still, so far as we know, the same 5-piece as it was four years ago (Phillip Laüffer, Vinz Eberlein, Leo Beck, Peter Zeitman and Tommy Schamann), the work turned in here vaults them past established exemplars of the form and straight into a far more rarefied echelon. Jumping off with, shall we say, a bold subtlety, “Glow,” over its first thirty seconds builds itself into a categorical Bleibian mission statement – rhythm section, rhythm guitar, a groove so seductively deep and darkly allusive you’re immediately lost in time – even before the synth arrives with the melody and Laüffer steps to the mic, at which point if you’re not lost in its every shadowy corner you’re in the wrong house. From there it’s just one wonder after another.

The surging, Psych Furs-channeling “Bitter Smile,” all maelstrom and modern romantic takedown as it powers its way by hook and by crook to its own status as a go-to post-punk standard; the heart-rending, gorgeously dramatic “Your Skin,” its mix and synth arrangement enough in themselves to base a movie on; “Portrait” crushing your dreams in a way you’ll be forever grateful for; “Around Your Arms” proving as if proof were needed that this band can take it up as many notches as required to reach ‘epic’ and do so without sacrificing an ounce of the humanity in which they’ve always been grounded; the exquisitely controlled, even delicate in places “Into the Night,” all its tension thundering just under the surface as it closes out the record and, in a very real sense, perhaps best exemplifies exactly the emotions implied in the album’s title, it’s all a lot to get one’s head around simply because it’s so rich and full and textured.

While possibly a product of both the soul-defining circumstances of the past eighteen months and the four-year interim between full-lengths – the band’s first three appeared yearly beginning in 2015 – the fact is Afraid to Leave is, thus far, Bleib Modern’s most accomplished work. It’s also, albeit unintentionally, a measure of the worldwide ‘scene”s insane resilience and strength that it has any darkwave-album-of-the-year competition at all. Regardless, as these things go and, in all honesty, as difficult (impossible, in fact) as such conclusions are to reach, Afraid to Leave is up there. Way up there.

Order 89 – L’èté Des Corbeaux

Because it’s a grossly over-generalized statement to make it’s probably irresponsible of me to say this but European artists seem to approach their work in a way that’s more grounded, more steeped in aesthetics than their American counterparts. Again, I realize I’m painting with a (possibly sloppily) broad brush here but on the overall US musicians, almost no matter genre, seem to lean at least as much – and often more as per my observation – toward force as they do nuance, their urgency more declarative, their narratives, in sound and word, more muscular in the telling, whereas with their fellow noisemakers across the icy cold waters of the Atlantic there tends to be, even in their noisier passages, a greater allowance for the quiet, often unheralded power of grace to take hold. One could speculate as to the why of this – the fact Europe birthed the Renaissance, the printing press, the first ‘modern’ novel and writers from Cicero to Shakespeare before this country stitched together its first sentence; all those salons, all those furrow-browed philosophers, all that couture and cuisine – but the premise remains pretty unshakeable from every angle. For proof, I offer Order 89, as perfect a synechdochal example as one could ask for.

Born a few years ago in Bordeaux (but of course), the band, consisting of Jordi (bass/vox), Flavien (‘machines’) and the guitar tandem of Luce and Elliot, have from the very off established themselves as an entity of some consequence, their 2019 debut Blue Acier defining the word ‘auspicious.’ From the almost nonchalant authority of its sound to its flawless delivery to the, well, graceful strength of the songs themselves and even down to that title (Blue Steel in English), our heads were turned, oh how they turned, as if to the roar of the sublime. Hyperbole? Well, that could be were it not for the arrival of this sophomore effort – rather closely on the heels of its predecessor it should be noted – bringing corroborating evidence in the form of ten more tracks marked by an elegant French tension and an expert control of the form in play.

Beginning, as most good and true things should, really, with a bass – in this case resonant with a touch of reverb – the haunt is already in before you’ve had a chance to notice its shadow but its the accrual of layers in its wake that best tells the Order 89 tale. A guitar creeps in, chipping away at the spell while adding to it. A few measures later in comes another, pecking with insistence and getting louder. Nineteen seconds past that the vocals and the pound of a bass drum drop into the mix with the subtlest of bursts and “100 Visages” proceeds along its entrancing way, its urgent melody always juuust on the edge of something, not to be cloying but because that’s the essence, isn’t it, the humming edge of life. In a sense one could say this is standard boilerplate post-punk circa 2021 but in many many other senses it transcends that impression with such prevailing ease the analytical falls away and we’re left with the pure experience of it, thrilling to its execution, to craft burgeoning into intuition (or is it the other way around who cares) and running away with our dark little hearts. All we can do is hold on, sway a bit and, if you’re anything like me, swoon.

“Histoires Parallèles,” with its Wobblean opening (and, in fact, a touch of Levenesque guitaring tucked in there as well now that I listen for the thirteenth time) is edgy enough to warrant those PiL references and pop enough to turn your living room or wherever into club night no matter the time of day, “Gangster” has a coiled energy the complexity of which seems to loosen its core structure even as it’s tightening it (I know, I know, but trust me on this), the knife’s edge quality of “Vertige” makes it the album’s most frantic track and shows the band’s in as close touch with their primal roots as anyone while the fraught “Les Nuits Savages” races across a psycho-emotional terrain as if being both chased and defiant before L’ètè des Corbeaux bows out on a note of complicated melancholy via “Pays Sacrifié” (“Sacrified Country”).

On both their albums so far this band, their material, are a model for how a deftly disciplined restraint can knock you on your ass without you really realizing exactly how it happened. All of a sudden you’re sitting there at least (if not fully) blown away and breathless and looking for a way – if it’s even possible – to climb back into your normal life. Order 89, in other words, is why we listen to music.

[find each of these records here. Feature image courtesy the author]