Sometimes writing album reviews, in particular, can be extraordinarily difficult. Interestingly, it is rarely bad or disappointing albums that fall into this category – those are much, much easier, as flaws are often self-evident and easy to pick out. No, it’s the really good albums that are the tough ones. How on earth do I do justice to complex, brilliant albums that are created by vastly talented musical minds, without just saying “this is awesome”?
SOL: A Self-Banishment Ritual
seeming on amodelofcontrol.com
This is the dilemma that I’ve faced with SOL: A Self-Banishment Ritual for over two months. I heard the album in advance, to allow preparation for what became Talk Show Host: 034, and it was clear from the off that this was a dense, ambitious work. In the meantime, I’ve listened to this album a lot, my wife loves it (as she did Madness & Extinction), and I’ve recommended it to a number of friends, but been unable to write about it until now, as it has taken these multiple listens and conversations to be able to start to get my thoughts in order.
Before I start on the meat and bones of the album, though, it is worth considering that each of the releases so far have had distinct themes, which run through the entire DNA of each release.
Madness & Extinction saw an examination of how humanity, on a personal, micro-level, might deal with the end of the world, and the result was a tender, dramatic musing on human nature that had a jaw-dropping empathy for its subjects.
The Worldburners EP saw that world conceptually in flames, and the result was a more jagged, angry take – although was just as worth picking up for the striking variety of the litany of remixes that were involved, and all were worth hearing. Even my wife, never normally one to bother with remixes, was a rapt listener of the EP and still rhapsodises about it now.
Which brings us to SOL. As my recent interview with Reed, and the subtitle of the album (A Self-Banishment Ritual) suggests, this takes the concept further, musing this time on rebirth, renewal and personal growth, and there is so much to talk about here, that it is difficult to know where to start.
Reed’s work here embodies every aspect of the all-but-mission statement for the album. This is Reed evaluating his own musical development to this point, and setting every point, every aim, further into the distance, and somehow, he reaches every single goal. This is Seeming v2.0, one where genre boundaries are irrelevant and his restless mind is able to pull in every conceivable influence, but still making an album that flows, that sounds of one piece, and frankly is one of the most astounding records I’ve heard in a long time.
The sound of the album is, well, very Seeming. That is, the base is dark electronic pop – harder-edged than synthpop, more accessible than industrial, with Alex Reed pushing his voice to the limits time-and-time again. So far, so expected. But on that base, there is a ceaseless exploratory energy that sees, for example, Zookeeper bring in Nile Rodgers-esque guitars and symphonic flourishes (not to mention a galloping drum-beat in the background that brings to mind a stampede past you, the listener). Or The Unspeaking, which to my ears nods to Jarre and Kraftwerk, and the linear momentum of “Krautrock” (not a name I like, but whether we like it or not, it has stuck), with the unexpected crashes of instrumentation cleansing the ears.
The lead single was a surprise in some ways, that really should have been a signpost for the glories to come. Stranger is a wonderfully lush, melodic song that genuinely deserves the epithet “soulful” – Reed’s voice rolls gently over the slow-paced rhythm, with the counterpoint of S∆MMUS‘ voice providing a near-perfect foil for a sweet chorus.
Other guests – imagined and real – make their presence felt too. The breathless, incessant drums and subtle guitars allow the forceful surge of If I Were You to amaze, even more so when you see in the liner notes that the song was inspired by a dream involving John Balance of Coil performing the song to Alex Reed. Now that is inspiration. That said, I couldn’t imagine John Balance ever writing a chorus this wonderful (it never really was the Coil style).
The perhaps more jarring – on paper – external contribution comes on the sprawling At The Road’s End. The key line of which is “straight on into wilderness / forward into darkness”. In other words, take the risks, take the leap into the unknown. Test yourself, make something to remember. Here that is to write a deceptively straightforward, mid-paced industrial movement complete with ominous piano stabs, and a blossoming melodic heart that sees the refrain repeated into what seems like infinity, before none other than Merzbow takes the track apart, blowing it to smithereens amid two minutes of scorching, howling noise that doesn’t feel out of place whatsoever.
This is also an album to study and luxuriate in the lyrics. Reed seems to overflowing with ideas here, and the songs are appropriately wordy, revelling in pulling the story and the concept forward, but somehow never being verbose. Some of the lyrical details are wonderful, too. Such as the meta humour of opener Doomsayer, a song that took five or six listens before a lightbulb went on over my head, and suddenly it clicked. “Will the world finally get the message if I hide it in a pop song (Well, the second verse is here already)“. Ho ho. The song itself is a showy, outgoing beast that kinda goes “well, are you along for the ride?”. Emphatically, yes.
The Knowledge perhaps questions whether the right route was taken by humanity, but is accepting of the fate (“I’ve read the terms and conditions / let the record show I agree to my position“), and suggests an alternative route (“next time let’s get raised by wolves“)…which follows into the breathless, rampaging Feral, which appears to imagine someone being raised by said wolves, and ending up a “celebrity” on talk shows and the like. Well, it’s no less likely than some other recent world events, I guess, and is a hell of an alternate future.
Amid all the energy within this album, as well, there are some astonishingly tender moments, and one of those – The Forgetting Room – is possibly the highlight of the entire album. Initially a subdued track with a delicate string backing and brushed beats, that blooms out of nowhere into a heart-wrenching, swooning chorus and a song of deep love and hope.
I’ve not even mentioned the oddly affecting vocal treatments of I Love You Citizen, or the stuttering percussion and melodic elegance of Phantom Limb, or the one time where the past comes into view, on the gorgeous melancholy and wordless harmonies of The Wildwood. These songs would be highlights anywhere else, here they are simply equals to other brilliant compositions.
The album closes with the ravishing power of Talk About Bones, with staggering vocal harmonies and a fiery defiance that absolutely burns through the track, with the hook of the song – and crux of the whole thing – being “What sets your soul on fire?“. This is an album that questions, that forces you to think, and this song seems to be a vital key in that internal discussion. What gets you going? What pushes you forward, what inspires you? Or more importantly, what could you possibly be if you put your mind to it?
This isn’t an album searching or wanting your answers to those questions, though. It is pushing you to think, like Alex Reed has, about putting those ideas into motion and making something of it.
Don’t bother to try and pigeonhole this, either. Seeming is nominally added into the industrial realms by two things – their record label, and also Reed’s exceptional work documenting the history of industrial in Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music. But here, what is in the mix, who or what it sounds like is ultimately irrelevant – my comparisons above are just words, just ways of putting a hook in to allow some form of descriptive license.
This is a vast, nuanced and quite extraordinary album, that smashes the ideas of boundaries and proves that with an open-minded, intelligent spirit, you can make anything work. It is an endlessly absorbing, accessible album that needs no familiarity with other “industrial” bands to enjoy, and after umpteen listens I’m still finding new elements to enjoy, and I’ve no doubt after many listens more I’ll still be doing so.
Alex Reed has just raised the bar to an unimaginable degree.