Malignant Records (TUMORCD62), 2013
Some albums fit their concept perfectly. If you were to hold the CD, read the title of the album and the tracks, and imagine what the music within might sound like, there’s a good chance you’d be close to correct. The artist must have been in a similar situation at one point, wanting to make an album with a particular sound and specific theme, and gone on to fashion the sound to fit it as closely as they could. Or, perhaps, they begin with an image or a feeling, and do their best to make it heard.
Caul’s album The Long Dust is a prime example how this idea can succeed. The album’s artwork depicts a vast swath of orange sky dominated by a swollen, heat-distorted sun, with a few scattered telephone poles barely visible through the haze. The tracks have titles like “Sea of Fossils,” “Veil of Sand,” and “Dunelight,” and you’re left to wonder, what kind of music might fit such a strongly established identity.
Caul (aka Brett Smith) has crafted a soundtrack for a film that doesn’t exist, except in his (and the listener’s) head. Not a new concept, perhaps, but one that some are better able to pull off than others. I’m willing to bet, however, that if you gave this album to someone not the wiser and told them it was music from an independent Western film called The Long Dust starring, say, Guy Pearce, they’d probably look it up on imdb after listening.
The Long Dust isn’t strictly ambient; it’s too well-formed, too structured. But it’s not instrumental pop either; it’s too complex and experimental. Caul has a lengthy discography dating to the mid-90s, much of it in the dark ambient camp, so Smith knows how to create and maintain mood, but The Long Dust is more than ambience. “Wires” begins typically for the genre, as distant synth chords are accompanied by a deep bass pulse, but once the electric guitar – yes, guitar! – kicks in, we’ve taken our first steps into Caul’s desert. The guitar is buried in the electronics, a simple chord progression reminiscent of Robin Guthrie’s solo work, and has a distinct Western flavor. A light chime arises, completing the song (yes, The Long Dust is an album of songs, each under five minutes in length), and then things begin to wind down, guided by a piano that mirrors the guitar. The sand-and-open-sky theme is enhanced in “Relic,” as a twanging guitar is flanked by organic drumming and tympani (with handclaps!), while a mournful voice wails in the background alongside airy keyboards. The song is anchored by a bass drone that doesn’t allow us to float away; there’s a weight to the proceedings that gives you pause, reminding you that all isn’t quite right here.
“Anointing” builds this sense of unease, with lightly stabbing keys, a metronome beat, and nervous snares, before the whole thing explodes into glorious electric guitar, crashing percussion, and frenetic sequencing; the conflict, whatever it is, has begun. Things slow down from there, with a series of introspective portraits as we move ahead, but the mood has been firmly established. It’s up to us to give further meaning to the music, or let Caul bear us along, through the plucking guitars, sweeping keys, and rattling percussion. The title track is a highlight, with its backwards chimes, echoing guitar chords, and deep bass thrums, and “Red Lightning” is The Long Dust at its most peaceful, with gentle Harold Budd-style piano and tranquil guitar-laced atmospheres. We’re left to wander a bit too long as things progress – the remainder of the album never quite reaches the dazzling heights of the opening tracks – but the brash and visceral closer, “The Unwept Waste,” ends the album with an arresting bang: screeching guitar, bashing drums, and an ominous drone intertwine with another distant wail, serving as a reminder that our journey was not just memorable, but dramatic. Closing credits, indeed.
The Long Dust is a triumph of concept, narrative pace and mood. Brett Smith understands how to shape his music to create such an experience; you’d think he’d been doing this for years. Smith has abandoned the dark ambient trappings of his previous work to embrace post-rock ambience; not something everyone could pull off, especially so well. Add the fact that each song clings to a particular theme, and the album becomes all the more impressive when considered as a whole. Next time I travel to the desert in person, I’m sure The Long Dust will be playing in my head. In the meantime, anytime I want Caul to be my tour guide through mysterious dunes and under the bloated sun, all I have to do is listen to this magnificent album.