Two months ago, we shared the first single of London-based act Sleep Token, and engaged in a long and fruitless search for their identity (arcticdrones.com/listen/sleep-token-thread-the-needle). They say they worship the god of sleep, and that they “are a masked, anonymous collective of musicians.” But now, with their first full release lying on our digital doormat, it is time to leave behind the mystery, and focus on the music that’s in front of us.
RELEASE DATE: 02 December 2016 LABEL: Self-released
It is hard to not treat One as a piece of revelatory scripture, but the last thing we want to do is plough through the record as if it were some bible. At first sight, the record – consisting of three songs and their instrumental piano counterparts – sounds like a masterpiece of emotional djent, marrying sweet girl indie with fierce, down-tuned guitars. But there is much more to this record than a simple blend of two genres. Sleep Token’s attention to detail is what elevates One above its contemporaries, with well-crafted synths and distinct stylistic influences creeping in from time to time.
Mood is key on One, and no song sets the mood better than Thread the Needle. This sexual horror epic keeps the instrumentation sparse throughout the song until half-way through when heavy guitars come bursting in. When everything quiets down again, nothing remains but the presence of danger resonating against the walls. “You turn the lights out,” the vocalist reiterates. “Come on and find out.” A muffled scream is heard, and a seemingly infinite space appears between the listener and his companion-vocalist, as if being consumed by an unknown force. The second time the crushing guitars come in, they are heavier than ever before, and they leave nothing behind but eerie synths and an atmosphere of darkness unending.
Fields of Elation is centred around a big chorus and a heavy breakdown in the middle of the song, but it is not your average emo sing-along chorus. Ironically, for a song with such a happy title, it is one of the most melancholic cuts imaginable. With its relatively simple song structure it is less strong than Thread the Needle, with its very sophisticated use of loud-quiet dynamics. However, Fields of Elation is a song that really pulls the heart-strings, with an awesome guitar outburst that will appeal to music-minded listeners in an equal way as literary listeners will be enchanted by the lyrics (come on, who ever uses the word “loamy”?)
Saving the best for last, When the Bough Breaks is the true pearl of this record. With its R&B-inspired a cappella intro, and intricate song structure it is the strongest cut on the record. It exposes most of the prog metal influences that this record displays, which were present on the previous two songs, but here they are shown in full forc. When the Bough Breaks is not free from flaw, however, which is revealed near the middle of the song where vocal layers and heavy guitars start to interweave. The two vocal lines are lower in the mix, but they also loose their distinction, which diminishes their power. All of this however is perfectly made up for in the instrumental outro, in which composition again flourishes in a terrific combination of piano and heavy guitars.
Despite the relative consistency in sound and style, the three songs feel disjointed. They are all separated by moments of complete silence, leaving no doubt that they are meant to be seen as three separate songs. It makes it very hard for the listener to get a sense of the overarching mood of the record, which is obviously a hard thing for any EP of three songs to do, but it slightly diminishes the album’s impact.
It’s not unimaginable that people are going to dislike the idea of having half the EP taken up by instrumental piano versions and it sure looks like a cheap and unnecessary way to fill up an album. But after multiple listens the format finally starts to sink in, and the piano pieces at the end become more of a subconscious reprise, than an artistic way to represent the material in its pure form, or as plain, cheap filler. The arrangement of the songs is actually quite different, shifting the accents of each of the songs, and coming closer to the more traditional work of modern composers like Ludovico Einaudi and Hauschka. In contrast with their full-band counterparts, they actually go very well together, and it wouldn’t have been bad for them to be one big reprise track.
Taking everything together, it is undeniable that One is an incredible compositional accomplishment. Even though its format sometimes seems to stand in its way, One has a killer atmosphere, and an attention to detail that gives the songs a lasting power. The mystery as to who Sleep Token exactly are hasn’t been solved yet, but it doesn’t matter as we have another addition to this year’s already impressive string of highlights. What remains for us is to wait for Two, Three, and more…