This past November I began compiling my year-end lists and came to the definitive conclusion that 2016 had been a somewhat underwhelming year for post-rock. Despite a number of very solid releases, few stood out as “Best Of” efforts. As per usual, I was immediately proven wrong. Once I finally finished compiling my choices, the floodgates seemed to suddenly open, revealing several new releases emerging from unexpected, largely unknown sources. One after another, I was introduced to stunning releases, as if the world was purposefully thumbing its nose at my shrugging suppositions. It is now a personal goal of mine to recap as many of these great records as possible in short order in hopes of introducing the potential luminaries of post-rock’s next era to any readers who may be feeling, like I was, that the genre was beginning to eat itself, that it was losing some of the inspiration and immediacy it once possessed.
The first of these bands has yet to play a single show, has a mere 266 likes on Facebook, and yet they have composed one of the most rewarding albums of 2016. They are a trio from Modesto, California and their name is Ravena. Their debut Laocoön is not an easy puzzle box to unlock, but I would urge readers to take a crack at it and discover all it has to offer upon intent, repeat listens.
RELEASE DATE: 25 November 2016 LABEL: Self-released
A point of interest when delving into Laocoön is its dual presentation. At first I saw “5 tracks, 115 minutes” and thought “what am I getting myself into?” But the album is actually offered in two different forms – 4 tracks, clearly separated for “easier” consumption, followed by the title track, which is best described as a “Director’s Cut” of the record; all four songs are presented as movements in a single piece, connected with extended stretches of ambience that don’t appear on the individual tracks. All told, these additions add about twenty minutes to the overall running time. It certainly doesn’t make for easy listening, but I’m of the mind that a hearty artistic challenge does us all good from time to time. Either way, it’s a fascinating presentation, allowing for side-by-side analysis and listeners’ choice in terms of their method of consumption. It’s something I’d love to see attempted by other artists, as it brings an unexpected but entirely welcome dimension to the listening process.
Laocoön is a debut striking in its confidence and willingness to display restraint. It is thoughtful, has a defined artistic vision, and proves capable of blending a variety of genre stylings without ever breaking its focus or shifting tones in too jarring a fashion. This is perhaps a happy accident resulting from Ravena’s three members hailing from somewhat divergent musical backgrounds. Scott Randle, who handles drums, bass and keys, came up playing both tech-metal and doom, and handles arrangements once the guitars are in place. Rhythm guitarist Braden Brenizer has been influenced more by post-rock, and as the primary songwriter he brings those sensibilities to his riff composition and the general conceptual nature of the music. Justin Cook, a long-time black metal musician, is referred to as “the voice” of the band, layering melodies and guitar hooks over Brenizer’s initial ideas. It would seem that having three uniquely-disciplined individuals bringing an equal amount to the table has benefitted Ravena in the creation of a mature, cohesive unit that tantalizes both with their current work and their future potential. Being a self-proclaimed studio band has also afforded them the luxury of not having to write with live execution in mind. Instead, they are free to experiment and craft a dense, challenging work of musical art that grows richer with each listen.
Opening track “Teraphim” proves a strong introduction to the band’s prowess. It would be easy to become entranced by the sweeping chords that power through the song’s mid-section, but to focus only there would be to undervalue the extended moments of stillness that surround it, which patiently unfold and provide weight to support that most-memorable crescendo. The ambience at the beginning builds slowly into the primary melody, while what follows that initial climax proves to be an effective transition into the song’s final swell, giving “Teraphim” an ebb and flow not unlike the dynamics of a soundtrack.
Successive tracks are engaging in the manner in which they do not necessarily follow the path one initially anticipates. “Valta” opens with an almost-sinister melody that suggests an oncoming darkness, but ultimately the track rises to become something more uplifting and inspiring. Closing track “Carrion” begins like a deceptively-pretty, brooding processional, but eventually descends to become full-scale gloom-inducing metal, tolling bells and all. Even the most conventional composition, “Unnok” achieves rank as a stellar example of modern post-rock, with its careful build toward a moving crescendo.
Laocoön is the embodiment of patience rewarded. It never arrives where it is going in short order, but the journey is well-worth it, and listeners will find that it traverses numerous terrains with striking skill. The concept alone of having the “extended cut” available makes it immediately intriguing, but thankfully Ravena has also provided listeners with some of the strongest compositions to emerge from post-rock or post-metal in 2016, and one of several glimmers of new hope to emerge as the calendar prepared to turn over.