Sunday, December 10, 2017

album review: 'between the walls and the window' by ché aimee dorval

So, about three years ago around this time, I reviewed the self-titled debut from Casualties of Cool, yet another side project of extreme metal artist Devin Townsend. And while I could talk a fair bit about metal artists making a shift towards country, to this day Casualties of Cool remains unlike anything I've ever covered. The sinuous melodic grooves rooted in old-fashioned progressions yet decidedly new, paired with a mix as atmospheric and textured as any Devin Townsend Project record beforehand. A record playing more with subtle abstractions and ghostly metaphor than its direct narrative - which involves space travel and a sentient moon because of course it does - it was near-impossible to properly classify. Post-country, atmospheric country, it was a sound that confounded most indie country fans and metalheads alike - and yet I would posit that anybody who has actually heard the record would testify it is one of the best albums of the decade.

So why mention any of this? Well, for as much as Devin Townsend shaped the sound and production, he did have one other major collaborator: fellow Canadian Ché Aimee Dorval. She's been active in the underground for the past decade, her sound pulling on similar country atmospherics to Casualties of Cool, but also drawing on soul, blues, and rock to anchor her hypnotic and sultry melodic grooves and sharp writing. She put out a record in 2009 and an EP in late 2014, and thanks to PledgeMusic, she was able to put together another full-length record for this year that's bound to go slept on by pretty much everyone. Well, I'm not going to stand for that, so I wanted to cover Between The Walls And The Window - what did I find?

Well, it's tough to say, honestly. I've been steadily listening to this project pretty much non-stop since it dropped and while I'm certain it's damn good, I keep hesitating in calling it great, and that bugs me. Part of that comes with the feeling that this record really doesn't misfire, but something isn't quite clicking as strongly as it did on Casualties of Cool, and it's been a bit of a struggle to pinpoint what that is.

Now one thing I can guarantee that it's not is Ché Aimee Dorval herself, and let's make this clear: if there is a reason to listen to this album, it's her. I loved her voice on Casualties of Cool and she's as expressive if not moreso here with her own material, with both the poise to ease back when she needs to and a clear belting tone that is as strident or soulful as any you'll hear. As a singer she is an absolute powerhouse who can bring real subtleties of emotion and control to her delivery, and I can't praise her enough here. And I really do like a lot of her writing and lyrics here too, but let's get one thing established: this record is bleak. We'll talk about this more when we get into the production, but if you're looking for a record with writing as harrowing and depressing as any doom metal record, Dorval delivers - and again, so much of this is dependent upon subtleties in delivery and word choice. You get the sense this a very deliberate project in its thorough excavation of details and situations, but it starts seriously melancholic and is consistently in that tone for its entire runtime, with maybe the closest thing to a bright spot being the hopeful questions behind 'Holding In'. But beyond that, the album starts with the paralyzing fear of 'Afraid', is violently drowned out and repressed on 'Buried', subjected to painful regret in the face of a friend's loss on 'I Should Have Worried', and then faces the numb expectation of attack on 'Low' - it's a record where you have an increasingly vivid slice of self-criticism on 'The Art Of Dying' where after all of its increasingly brutal retrospection we get the line 'I breathe because I have not yet mastered the art of dying'. Jesus, I know emo songwriters would give anything for lines both that poetic and measured and yet that dark - but it's important to stress there aren't notes of immaturity or a pop approach to cultivate that audience, the writing is too methodical and the delivery is too intense. And tension is also a major element here: the relationship on 'Erupt The Quietus' is on the verge of breaking down, but neither partner can really cross that breach, and that's before you get the spoken word resignation that comes behind the failed relationship portrait of 'I know I know (a broken heart)'. 

So okay, it's a dark album, and the slower tempos and deliberate word choice can make the record feel long - it's only eight tracks at thirty-five minutes but if you're in the mood it can feel twice that length - but the writing and delivery is potent, so why am I not gripped by this more? Honestly, I think some of that comes down to the instrumentation and production - and more of the latter than the former. Unlike Casualties of Cool this is a fair few steps away from country towards alternative rock, indie folk, and even some post-rock elements in the liquid, simmering tones and atmosphere, but there's a part of me that feels this would all be a far better fit for a genre like doom metal that could really crank up the melancholy and bleakness to match Dorval's impassioned delivery, similar to what Chelsea Wolfe is doing. Now I'm not denying there is subtlety and smolder here - the tolling simmer and grinding darkness behind 'Afraid' that chugs through some of the background of 'Erupt The Quietus', the echoing smoky guitar tones swelling through the reverb on 'I Should Have Noticed', even the gentler touches on 'I know I know (a broken heart)' and especially 'Art Of Dying' - but for as potent as these tones are, they don't quite pick up the level of texture or bite or atmosphere to really match the intensity of the content or vocals - and if you want to know part of the reason for that, you can see the production credits from Bob Rock and walk away. He's not the only producer here - Shawn F. Cole handles five of the eight songs while Rock handled three - but Rock's bad reputation of nullifying any edge he tries to add is all the more present here, where there are some rougher tones on 'Erupt The Quietus' and 'Holding In' and 'Low', but they feel smothered by drums that are too loud or a little too much reverb. Now part of this I don't know if Dorval could have avoided - Devin Townsend is such a great producer that anyone after him is going to sound like a step down, especially when it comes to atmosphere - but I can't move past the feeling that this record feels a tad too smooth and controlled, not quite matching the bleakness of the content. And when the atmosphere isn't quite all the way there, an album that could suck you into the dark can start to fade into the background.

And look, I really wanted to love this album, and for significant chunks of it I do - the writing is sharp and cutting, Dorval is a force to be reckoned with as a singer, and when the melodies and hooks do stick with you they are pretty damn good. But this record needed to feel thicker and heavier or maybe a little more enveloping in its production to really pull me in here, and it might be a shade too conventional there for its own good. I'll admit it's probably more accessible this way, and I can see a lot of first time listeners enraptured by this... but for me it didn't quite get there. As such I'm giving this an extremely strong 7/10 and absolutely a recommendation - I'd love to support fellow Canadians in independent music, and Ché Aimee Dorval does have real starpower going forward, and I can see her having a masterpiece in her. For me, this doesn't quite get there yet, but she's definitely close, so you'll want to check this out.

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