Alexander’s knack for emotive soundscapes bridges the divide between acoustic and electronic instrumentation.
Message to Bears: Carved from TidesRose Kerr
3.75 / 5
Multi-instrumentalist Jerome Alexander aka Message to Bears is a prolific electronic artist who certainly received a boost from his inclusion in the soundtrack to last year’s Life Is Strange video game. But whereas his contributions there were more folk-indebted—a characteristic of the bulk of his previous three albums—his latest Carved from Tides doesn’t wear the folk mantle as strongly. For one, Carved from Tides is decidedly short on vocals. Alexander instead redoubles his efforts on crafting his intricate (as always) ambient arrangements. The result is an album that emphasizes its instrumentals above all else and showcases Alexander’s knack for emotive soundscapes that bridge the divide between acoustic and electronic instrumentation.
The juxtaposition between “Spin/Float” and “They Ran” is a great illustrator of the shift from Maps to Carved from Tides. The former feels most like an old Message to Bears track circa Departures, with its folky, plucked acoustic guitar, strings and additional female vocals from sister Gemma Alexander. The watery synth line and singular electric guitar line distill such heavily folk feelings, but it’s still there. “They Ran,” however, builds over a slowly swelling synth line, and it’s only lyrics are nothing more concrete than harmonious “ooh”’s from Alexander. But, then again, Alexander’s lyrics have always leaned heavily on repeated, atmospheric phrases, as on “Beneath Our Snow,” which exclusively features variations on the title.
But Message to Bears has never really been a project about lyrical depth. It’s all about capturing moods and creating an atmosphere with Alexander’s layered arrangements. And his instrumental choices on Carved from Tides are a mixture of old standbys and exciting new additions. While the folk influences are less direct, the warmth of that earlier style is still felt in Alexander’s use of harmonium and stringed instruments. These mainstays add texture to his beguiling electronic vignettes that make extensive use of synths and lo-fi effects. Not that these songs were ever in danger of sounding unfeeling, but the warmer tone goes a long way to convey the human fragility behind Alexander’s stuttering electronics.
As ever, Alexander’s songs build on creeping arrangements to swelling, transportive finales. On “Blossom,” his tender composition quite literally blossoms out of languid harmonium chords, strings and gentle xylophonic notes into bustling percussion and plaintive lines from Alexander. “Breathe” offers the piano-centric version of this build-up, picking up its reedy percussion about midway through and using Alexander’s own voice as the droning atmospherics throughout. The end here speeds up seamlessly, reveling in rapid-fire keys, a flashing beat and more incomprehensible noises from Alexander. Even on a track where his (largely unadorned) reverbed voice is front and center as on “When You’re Gone,” Alexander crafts a slow burning crescendo around additional instruments, glitchy electronic beats and falsetto vocals.
The most exciting aspect of Message to Bears’ sound is Alexander’s ability to capture both natural instrumentals and electronic manipulations in his compositions. Whether it’s “I’ll Lead You There” with its clean acoustic strings or “Hold On” and it’s evocative trombone finale, Alexander always manages to reconcile his ambient electronics with natural flourishes and creates undeniable texture and depth. while remaining thoroughly meditative.
About the Author
Rose Kerr is a blogger and freelance film critic. A childhood filled with movies set her on the path to become a self-taught cinephile, with the help of her local library's film collection. She only knows the answers to Trivial Pursuit questions in the Entertainment category.