Next to 2013’s brooding, double LP odyssey, Disillusion, O’Brother’s newest release, Endless Light, feels fit and trim by comparison.
O’Bro has been defined in the past by their weighty, multi-part compositions that tend to favor non-traditional song structure, which makes for some lengthy records. It’s not uncommon to see tracks in the seven-to-nine-minute range (the longest song in their catalog, “Cleanse Me” clocking in at just under 14), all of which tend to be dense, emotionally expressive tracks that run the gamut from high-energy and hook-laden, to barely whispered explorations of indeterminable aural space.
Their shortest LP to date (by about three minutes), Endless Light focuses this energy forward, producing an experience that feels even shorter by comparison, though it ends barely a song’s worth sooner. The wealth of ideas and moods that would normally be explored intermittently a few sections at a time across multiple tracks are now distilled down into single songs, adopting a more traditional structure, while allowing themselves to be expressed succinctly and efficiently.
What comes out of this process is the leanest, catchiest and most digestible O’Brother record yet.
“Slow Sin” follows the band’s tradition of opening a record at a creeping pace, carving it’s own space somewhere between the dark and ritualistic “Malum,” and the jazzy, vaporous “Come Into the Divide” of their previous two records. Its far off, echoing leads, juxtaposed with thundering, regimented percussion–played simultaneously by every band member at once–come across as decidedly more fatalistic than previous openers, a theme that goes on to define Endless Light as a whole.
Singles “Deconstruct” and “Bloodlines” are appropriately stacked in the first half, digging their hooks in deep to carry the listener through the more gradual, experimental vocabulary adopted by the back half of the record. The pace looks uneven if you spell it out, but their strength in arrangement is underlined by the fact that the record itself never feels that way.
Everything we’ve come to love from O’Bro is present–Michael Martens’ beautifully minimalist drum style, crushingly heavy bass, attention-snaring guitar rhythms; but it is the last piece of this tightly-arranged puzzle that seems to get the most attention here–Tanner Merrit’s unforgettable vocal performance. Vocals have always been a focus for the band, but the weight certainly has shifted more in their direction, with many more opportunities for them to shine and stand alone, as the title track and “Time Is A Length of Rope” will attest.
The only track that doesn’t seem to follow the “find a path and stick to it” model is “I Am (Become Death),” which manages to, astonishingly, find a way to tackle several changes in mood, texture and dynamics in about half the time it might take a similarly structured song from Garden Window, their first LP.
The entire record carries the sense of fatal determinism set by the opening track. Songs such as “Black Hole” and “Realm of the Physical” chase this sort of willful thrust toward oblivion, almost joyfully at times, but –more so in the case of the latter– with a kind of existential absurdity. For instance, “Realm of the Physical” spends its entire life as a gradual build toward a grand crescendo, but never quite reaches it, and instead falls prematurely into a long, haunting drone, before the needle reaches the inner groove and there is only the sound of dead wax.
If Garden Window was the rush of new ideas and sensations of birth, Disillusion the rebellious conflict against the impeding void in life, then surely, Endless Light is a slow acceptance and embrace of the eternal.