Thirteen songs heavy on atmosphere and darkness.
Cut from a cloth that will please fans of Chelsea Wolfe and Marissa Nadler, A Dead Forest Index delivers 13 songs heavy on atmosphere and darkness on In All That Drifts From Summit Down. It’s not all gloom and doom, though. There’s real beauty to be had here, even among all the sadness. “Cast of Lines” and “Ringing Sidereal” summon memories of Nico at her most seductive and moody. The compositions are built around spare instrumentation: slow, impressionistic, Mo Tucker-style drums, guitar figures that are strummed in rudimentary fashion, keyboard lines that offer just a taste of harmonic delight and, of course, dramatic bangs and crashes that are meant to rouse us from the doldrums of despair.
That sturm und drang works best on “In Greyness the Water,” a three-minute sojourn into the darkness that pulls the listener into the musical landscape by force and doesn’t let go for three minutes and absolutely zero seconds. It’s a journey worth taking and the relentless, unforgiving nature of the music pummels the heart and mind with a determination that’s rare among bands of any ilk.
The intensity of a piece such as “Silver Thread of Sun” comes not so much from a tendency toward the dramatic as from the opposite. The tune seems to hang on by a thread, the minimalist guitar strums and vocals almost disappearing at times, as the listener becomes certain that maybe the track has wound to an end. It hangs on, almost building to climax, before turning tail and disappearing into the long dark night of silence.
That tendency toward understatement can be a bit much at times, and as the record wears on, the dynamics take their toll. It becomes hard to sort out the big builds from the quiet understatements, and just past the almost pop of “Myth Retraced,” you start wondering if you haven’t heard some of these songs before. Taken individually, however, those final compositions ultimately form into fine songs that speak directly to the duo’s best and darkest tendencies.
“Sand and Verse” rises and falls like the ocean and summons images of Scotland’s brilliant The Twilight Sad with its ability to craft pop songs that feel more like something derived from ancient folk than anything that can be traced back to Chuck Berry. By the time that that the closing “Homage Old” comes to an end, however, we’re ready to go home: It’s been an exhausting and trying ride and as good as the good moments are it can all be a bit much to take in at one time. At 13 songs (including two lovely vignettes) the record is about three songs too long though it’s never clear which ones would have been better left off. A good problem to have.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what keeps this record from being an overwhelming victory, one that would wind up on a Best of 2016 list, but some of it might come down to the very things that make it interesting: it’s at times too idiosyncratic, too novel for its own good. If those tendencies can be tempered and reigned in a bit, then perhaps more of us will have the name A Dead Forest Index on our lips.