Many thousands of years ago a human decided to take a risk. Climbed a cliff or swam across a river or whatever it was. They failed but kept trying. Others copied and built on that knowledge and this kept happening long after the initial human had died. And with each generation humanity and society advanced. Each generation lived longer and flourished more. Except for some of those out the front pushing the boundaries. Some of them only found the limit when it took their life, but as tragic and upsetting as that was, it was not in vain.
The third album for Sydney band We Lost the Sea, “Departure Songs”, would not have happened without tragedy. It adds to the lives of those who find enjoyment from it and those who created it, and honours those left behind, without diminishing the sadness and loss associated with that tragedy.
It’s their first instrumental record and explores dynamics and layering with three guitars (because you can never have too many), keys, drums and bass. In an age where chart music is all about loud and bouncy, plenty of artists like WLTS thankfully continue to show you can have width and quality. There are times when they utilise a choir, others with cello and trumpet and others with spoken word samples, with all this adding to the depth and texture of the sound.
The album tells a number of stories about events in history where people have sacrificed themselves for the benefit of others. In true WLTS style it takes us to the extremes of human endeavour, from the edge of space to the greatest depths that a human can dive just using scuba gear. And that’s both a literal and metaphorical adventure, because there are times this album is terribly sad, yet others where it soars to the heavens. But it’s vital you stay for the whole performance. This is really one piece in five parts and this won’t become apparent until you’ve listened right through.
When you buy the record you’ll get liner notes that explain the source of each individual story. I found enjoyment from seeking out the stories myself and matching them to the music. That’s how I decided the opening track ‘A Gallant Gentleman’ was not about a C.J. Dennis poem (even though it fits the theme) but is about Lawrence Oates, a member of the ill-fated voyage to the Antarctic led by Captain Scott a hundred years ago. Oates sacrificed his life so his sickness would not threaten the rest of his group. Despite their dire situation being caused by the errors of others, he calmly left their tent and walked to his death in the freezing conditions.
I’d listened to the album a couple of times before thinking about the stories, and when I did start looking for the connections my experience was immediately enhanced. These are brilliant soundtracks to films that don’t exist. The opener is built on familiar third wave post rock elements and is not a million miles from This Will Destroy You’s earlier works. It progresses from that with the use of a choir of girls singing in higher ranges, lifting it from the well-trod path. Close your eyes and you’re walking out into the snow and ice and howling icy winds, care of the choir. It’s one of the songs from the album I’ve heard live, and it could have suffered in translation to record by losing the impact of live performance, but the choir and the story provide the extra depth and interest live music otherwise provides. It’s a song that’s beautiful in a sad way, but behind the darkness is an uplifting light.
Had the album continued along the same lines it could have been easy to lose interest, such is the nature of long songs with no singer (how many people can hum, let alone recognise, Beethoven’s Fifth from the two minute mark?). That was never going to happen though with WLTS, and the remaining tracks all have periods of grating tension and can be quite unsettling and uncomfortable as they almost dare you to keep listening. I’m not talking Sutcliffe Jugend level uncomfortable, but enough to reward you for hanging in there until the relief comes.
Along with the tension and release, the songs get longer to the point where it’s easy to get disoriented, which is another musical analogy of the stories. The path can seem so clear but either a sudden or gradual change leaves you wondering when did this song start? How long has this song been going? Which way is up?
‘Bogatyri’ starts with harp-like strumming from one guitar while others provide some drone and harmony before bass comes in and leads us to a plodding, swaying build-up that introduces reverb-laden keys that dance with a single guitar line like a pair of birds separating and joining as they fly. It feels like a giant has awoken and is gathering pace, with others joining in as it heads toward an all-in climax before tailing off to silence. This is another song I’ve seen live and on its own on the album I feel like I want more from the crescendo – something more epic. As part of the whole it makes more sense, but right now I feel the magnificent build-up promises more.
In some ways this feeling returns for the next two tracks. There’s still slow burn crescendo in the closing seven minutes of ‘Challenger Part 1’ that leads to a climax (did I just say “the closing seven minutes”?). We hear the controller’s voice giving the cold hard assessment; “obviously a major malfunction”, the directions of the reporter to the cameraman to “keep following it” so our thirst for graphic images of death can be quenched. Seven people were dead, again because of errors and selfishness of others. And I’m still feeling unresolved.
Then it all makes sense. Each of the four previous songs finds resolution in the final track. This is the celebration of life and of progress and of achievement. These stories are not fables. These are not anecdotes that tell you how to live your life. This is waking up to the fact that good people die, and that sometimes it’s what allows us all to flourish more as humans. People who took unknown risks that were created by others. Like David Shaw. Like the Challenger crew. People with a sense of adventure; of exploration. People who thought we should leave the cave and go outside to climb that cliff or cross that river because it’s what we need to do. This album is a 60 minute build-up of sadness and catastrophe before we come to terms with the aftermath.
Echoed in these stories is the band’s own loss that has affected them so deeply, and the album becomes a tribute to their singer Chris Torpy who died in March two years ago. They could have disbanded, they could have got another singer, but instead they became a band without a singer and pushed ahead. With this record they’ve found a way to tell their own story through analogy and in doing so create a living celebration rather than a tombstone.
What better way to honour a friend.