Wrekmeister Harmonies

Light Falls

It might be the gift of the gab, or a fortuitous sense of timing, or a file of terrible and career-ruining secrets, but when JR Robinson comes to record as Wrekmeister Harmonies, he enlists an impressive assortment of guest musicians. Ones who are, in many cases, higher profile than he is. Since the project’s beginnings in Chicago around a decade ago, with the intention of performing in unconventional and grandiose public spaces, Wrekmeister Harmonies has been mulled, revered, critically acclaimed even. All the same, and even among devotees of intense, conceptually-driven avant-garde guitar music, you sense that the name carries less recognition factor than (for example) The Body, both members of whom featured on the last WH release, 2015’s excellent Night Of Your Ascension.

Two compositions of great sonic and thematic weight, Night… was inspired by 16th-century Italian composer Don Carlo Gesualso, and his murder of his wife and her lover; and John Geoghan, a Catholic priest jailed for sexual abuse of minors and subsequently murdered by another inmate. In that there are no lyrics addressing these subjects, it’s useful to know the backstory before listening, but a cast which also includes Marissa Nadler, Chris Brokaw and Einsturzende Neubauten’s Alexander Hacke create a powerful, emotionally draining 49 minutes. How, then, might Robinson try and match that on Light Falls, the follow-up and fourth Wrekmeister Harmonies studio album?

Again running to 49 minutes but divided into a more manageable seven tracks, Light Falls is less overt in its intent to punish. There are passages of relatively soothing acoustics, and the bucolic influence of old time blues and folk. The guest musicians this time round are far smaller in number than on previous WH albums, and seem to have been instructed to do what they do best. So it is that three members of Montreal’s widescreen anarcho-gaggle Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Thierry Amar, Sophie Trudeau and Tim Herzog – join Robinson and his one permanent bandmate Esther Shaw, and conspire to refit the project in their own image. The opening three tracks, spanning almost 25 minutes, are styled ‘Light Falls I-III’, and the manner in which they progress from enveloping psychedelic folk strum to washes of Trudeau’s keening violin to Savage Republic-like doomy chamber rock to low-key ambience with a jazzy bassline from Amar will be warmly familiar to any fans of Godspeed or related group A Silver Mt Zion. ‘The Gathering’, which follows, shifts from string-driven quietude to peals of riffs and feedback with an efficient abruptness that Godspeed nailed on the Yanqui U.X.O. LP.

This isn’t to say that the Wrekmeister regulars are passengers in their own vehicle, however. Robinson’s musical vision is as naturally imposing on a recording as you imagine his grey-bearded, urban-shaman-with-knuckle-tattoos appearance would be in the flesh. Titling the album in reference to If This Is A Man, Primo Levi’s account of his time in Auschwitz, Light Falls doesn’t explicitly reference it otherwise, but its lyrics speak to a gnawing sense of helplessness and futility. “Stay in / go out / get sick / get well / light falls,” Robinson repeatedly intones on ‘Light Falls I: The Mantra’, a pregnant pause between each phrasal verb. Notwithstanding his own, evidently busy schedule (this album comes less than a year after its predecessor, and has been completed for nearly that long), it’s an exquisitely blank evocation of what Robinson calls “slow, creeping change” – and how it takes hold in such a gradual manner as to be unnoticeable. Youthful Chicago folk guitarist Ryley Walker guests on here, more jangly than Pentangle-y on this occasion.

Moving into cards-on-table personal territory, for – I think – the first time in the Wrekmeister Harmonies catalogue, ‘Where Have You Been My Lovely Son?’ addresses Robinson’s breakup with the mother of his child, and what the lyrics (“All I want to do is hold your face in my hands again”) seem to indicate is an estrangement from both. The details are undisclosed beyond this, doubtless with good cause, but the anguish conveyed here is both resonant and universal: neither sympathy nor empathy is needed to find this a moving passage, bolstered by a droning, drumless backdrop.

It segues into ‘Some Were Saved Some Drowned’, rockist by this album’s measure – the banks of swelling guitars and Robinson’s vocal turn (“THERE IS NO GOD” goes the yelled refrain) would likely do good business with devotees of grandiose post-emo bands like Pianos Become The Teeth. Or perhaps they won’t find it, nor even those who set their watches to new product from the Godspeed! camp, and Wrekmeister Harmonies will continue to release grand, heavy, splendidly realised opuses to an audience much smaller than they deserve.

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