It never fails. I spend weeks and months poring over music, narrowing down to a list of the year’s best songs and albums. I finally publish it, and within days something comes along that forces me to reconsider everything I had previously thought to be true. This very specific madness has returned for the transition from 2015 to 2016, and this time it’s name is “Reaching Over Ice and Waves,” by Vienna’s Lehnen. A quartet comprised of two Americans and two Austrians, they are doing something that feels very immediate and important. If you are a fan of post-rock and you don’t think this is one of 2015’s best releases, you should still view it as one of the most exciting. There are certainly bands in this genre that have attempted a blend of techniques and approaches before, for instance, integrating vocals into a traditionally instrumental-driven post-rock soundscape. What often results is either (a) the vocals feel like an afterthought, added with the hope of differentiating the artist from the expected norm, or (b) it is evident that the band really does one thing well, and when it comes to whatever else they are attempting, the results are spotty.
RELEASE DATE: 28 May 2015 LABEL: Self-released
What immediately stands out to me about Lehnen is how confidently they stride through everything they do, and how seamless the blend of sounds proves to be. There are vocals on around half the tracks, but they never feel gimmicky or forced. Rather, they are brought into the fold when their presence is called for, and left behind when they aren’t. Every choice on the album feels natural rather than calculated – there are elements of post-rock, ambient, drone, post-metal and electronic – yet it all comes together to form a strikingly cohesive whole. It may sound strange to say, but what has probably impressed me most is their absolute control over a track that may be the most traditional, almost arena-friendly rock song that you are likely to hear coming from a post-rock band any time soon.
The album’s opener, “Immer Fremd,” begins with ambient noise and a vocal sample that weaves in and out of the mix, before giving way to what appears to be a typical post-rock structure and tone. However, around the 2:30 mark, the vocals show up and the song takes on a new, very welcomed vibe. Before you can prepare yourself, you are being absorbed into one of the most killer rock choruses of 2015. The chops that are on display with the vocal melodies here are almost disarming. Certainly, if you knew a post-rock band was incorporating a singer, you would likely expect the vocals to be buried in reverb, or pushed to a distant edge of the mix. Phillip Jamieson of Caspian, a vocal supporter of Lehnen, has described his band’s sporadic use of vocals as essentially another form of instrumentation, adding news layers to the overall sound. But in the case of Lehnen, when they bring the vocals to the table, they are strong and placed forward in the mix, with unwavering success. This sounds like a song written by a band that would feel comfortable sharing a stage with artists like Tool or Deftones, rather than one operating on the fringes of indie post-rock. It’s an electric beginning to what unfolds as a highly intriguing, diverse 50 minutes of music.
The following track, “How’s the Tires?,” proves to be the weakest of the album’s nine songs. While certainly not a bad tune, it is nevertheless the only one that does not consume and transport the listener. However, it is all upwards from there. “Horsetooth” explores a slow-burning, shoegazing approach, with a stirring chorus that packs legitimate emotional weight. “Nightdrive, Mile High” foreshadows the album’s second half with the heavily-distorted bass taking the lead, setting a foundation on which they build layers of melody. Just past the halfway mark, the guitars join in the riffing, making this the heaviest rocker on the first half of “Reaching Over Ice and Waves.” The end leads seamlessly into “Isolation,” which serves as connective tissue for the album’s two halves. This is the first full display of the band’s adeptness with droning ambience. It builds slowly, judiciously introducing a beautiful melody which eventually becomes the driving force.
The album’s second half begins with “Away.” With an almost-post-metal drone and layered vocals, it is reminiscent of a slightly more accessible Jesu. As is the case with a number of these songs, it is anchored by dense, heavy bass, which allows the guitars to wash over the rest of the mix with an array of slightly-distant, melodious echoes. Nothing is taking the lead here – instead, every instrument, along with the vocals, works together for the harmonious betterment of the whole. To borrow from Radiohead, this is a song which puts everything in its right place. “Estes” transitions into a more traditional sound – a trim, three and a half minute rocker that is positioned perfectly to break from the dreaminess of the tracks surrounding it. “TCK” is an electronic and ambient-driven track with a soothing vocal melody, which acts nicely as an intro to “Grey Like Travel,” the album’s behemoth closer. Beginning with a pretty, but ominous guitar part, it is soon accompanied by the building of drums and bass, which explode into down-tempo, towering post-metal brilliance. It is the perfect way to end the album, leaving the listener with a feeling like staring up in awe at the looming form of a musical monolith standing before them.
To me, Lehnen is exactly the kind of band that post-rock fans should be excited about, and getting on board with. It’s a strikingly mature album – they are adept at precisely choosing the appropriate moments at which to accentuate certain elements. Nothing ever feels forced, the album flows naturally through its tapestry of varying soundscapes, and ultimately comes out the other side as a decidedly cohesive whole. I see this kind of confident, seamless blurring of sub-genre lines as a prefiguration of post-rock’s future. Based upon “Reaching Over Ice and Waves,” I very much hope that I am right about that.