Litany Reviews: The Tear Garden's Crystal Mass - by Corey Goldberg
The Tear Garden's 'Last Man to Fly' quite simply changed my life. It was that single album that set me on a course of music. I hold it, as well as their other work, in the highest regard. Obviously, then, I had been eagerly anticipating the new release from the band that began as a Legendary Pink Dots and Skinny Puppy collaborative effort ever since it was announced that they planned to reconvene for a new record. However, this also meant that I would be quite difficult to impress. When ranked against absolute classics, would the new work stand on its own or would it remain a pale shadow of their previous triumphs? The Tear Garden have thus far carved themselves a unique niche in music with their emotionally expressive and intimate records. This sound would be too easy to repeat and it seemed possible that the Tear Garden could find themselves in a rut with no new ground to cover. With 'Crystal Mass', they have not only eradicated those fears, but also contributed yet another classic record to my collection.
The album makes a bold stylistic statement from the very first note. "Lament" begins purely electronically; a departure from the previous record's primarily acoustic sound. Though not entirely a surprise (early reports indicated a move back to electronics before the album was even recorded), this is a definite departure and, to some, a welcome return to the sounds of the first EP and album. The track quickly settles into an arpeggiated synth line reminiscent of "Ophelia" and the propelling bass line lends it an upbeat vibe not unlike "In Search of My Rose". Rounding out the mix are some gorgeous and laid-back guitar work from Martijn de Kleer and some atmospheric synths. With this track, Edward's voice appears to have hit a new high point. The care he gives to intonation and phrasing is unparalleled and his voice is controlled and understated. A beautiful chord progression, reminiscent of 'Last Man to Fly', gives "Lament" a foundation and cements the connection to the band's earlier work.
However, the difference of approach to production and mixing which lies between Dave Ogilvie on the earlier records and cEvin on these last two (with Frank Verschuuren on 'Crystal Mass') is plain just from this single track. 'Crystal Mass' and '…Angel…' have a much more 'up front' and 'down to basics' mix than the earlier records. Before the song's close "Lament" surprises us with a triumphant bubbling figuration of the main synth line, ending the song on an emotionally positive note.
"The Double Spades Effect" invokes a rhythm somewhere between folk-rock and tribal drumming. Edward is again subdued as his voice floats amidst background atmospherics, loops, and tapes, recalling 'Tired Eyes Slowly Burning' distinctly. Martijn's violin work is an asset to the band and his guitar experience shows as he exploits the timbre of his instrument. The band really grooves here with the bass, live percussion, and violin driving the track. Overall, this song falls well into the Tear Garden's proven approach of 'modern day troubadours', but does so using new elements
The positive vibe of the first two tracks is broken by "Desert Island Disc", which begins with an ominous and mysterious atmosphere. I can best describe the mood as driving alone down a deserted highway at night. Ka-Spel addresses the listener with images of forgotten faces from the past. An acoustic guitar plays a riff similar to that of 'Ascension Day' but in a melancholy context, harmonized by simultaneous electric guitar. Martijn's electric guitar on this track is particularly lyric and expressive. The liquidy percussion is detailed and intricately produced. The more lively chorus interrupts the midnight drive like the comfort of a familiar song on the car stereo, but that hopeful quality gives way as Edward's ironic lyrics darkly indict the listener "this is your life…and it's over." The spooky track teases us with salvation, but returns us to its dark origins. However, this is but a mere harbinger of what is yet to come.
"Hopeful" returns the album to more familiar territory. With live acoustic drums and a progressively folky sound, this song that could easily fit on 'To Be An Angel…" Lyrically and musically the song has a palatable sense of dismissive warning, as if Edward is informing us of an oncoming doom, but half-heartedly as he knows we will not head it. "Hopeful" has infectious progression making for a successful track within the context of the album but it is the confrontational lyrics which make it a valuable contribution to the band's canon.
"Castaway*" follows with a tribal rhythm in the style of "Tasteless", augmented by non-western percussion instruments. The bass line illustrates cEvin and Ryan's mutual interest in dub and reggae more than any other track. Swimming in the mix is a synth sounding a bit like 'Music for Cats'. Edward's filtered vocals are disarming and disturbing so shortly after the positive mood of much of the previous material. As wonderful as this track is overall, the jewel in its crown is Martijn's guitar solo, which can only be described as searing. The percussion pulls at the solo's rhythm and again a lot of attention is paid to the rhythm production. "Castaway" retains the disturbing mood of the previous tracks.
"Her Majesty's Trusted Food Taster*" brings us out of the somber mood of the past few tracks with an uplifting groove carried by live drums and percussion carefully treated with a variety of effects. The electric guitar introduces the chords and when the synths respond in kind we take off. If "Desert Island Disc" was driving alone at night, "…Food Taster" is the grandeur of a bird in flight beneath the warmth of the sun. The glow of this track is carried as the guitar gently wraps itself around the chords. This track is simply magnificent, however its placement between some other very dark songs robs it of its potential effect.
"Feathered Friends" begins with a noisy and hostile rhythm that builds itself out of Dwayne's "Burnout" and what sounds like a gating effect. A gorgeous fracture of melody responds and suddenly we are thrust into a grinding rhythmic loop that establishes a very dark tone. The bass, guitar, and drums pick this up as they develop a threatening and nerve wracking groove. When Edward's staccato almost rap-like voice enters, we know this will be unlike any other Tear Garden track we've ever heard. Edward's vocal is angry and grimy, building to his dismissive refrain "it's for the birds". Never before has he sounded so menacing. Martijn's electric guitar cuts into the mix, frothing with evil portents. Niels guests with his perverted and processed flute. This twist into a threateningly dark, almost violent, tone is simply one of the most shocking surprise turns I've ever heard an album (or project) take. In my mind it was completely unpredicted, however, looking back at the previous tracks on the album, it seems that this mood was always looming in the distance, waiting to explode here. Thus far I had felt that 'Crystal Mass' was quite a good Tear Garden album with enough new elements sprinkled in to be more than a mere rerun of past works. When I heard "Feathered Friends", I realized that 'Crystal Mass' reached a whole new level for the band.
"To Mourn the Death of Colour" brings the bile of "Feathered Friends" to its inevitable somber conclusion. Edward's voice is that of someone depleted from a long journey, a journey not unlike that of the listener of this disc. Edward seems to give in, saying "switch it off now, let me sleep". Along with the slow, dramatic backing this illustrates the depths of depression. The emotional pair of this and the previous track is, I believe, one of the highlights of the Tear Garden's overwhelmingly amazing oeuvre. The track winds down and begins to decay into an instrumental collage very reminiscent of "Last Post".
The ending of "…Colour" would seemingly be the perfect moment to end the album, but perhaps it is best not to end the record on such an emotionally low note. "Six of One" could easily have begun as a Download track, with its midtempo heavily electronic groove. The track is somewhat akin to "Empathy with the Devil", owing mostly to Edward's edgy vocal attitude. The danceable rhythm and layers of synths are reminiscent of the first side of 'Tired Eyes Slowly Burning' but the funky guitar work by Martijn and bass groove by Ryan give it a much freer feel. This is a great track which adds a biting tone to the album, but perhaps belongs elsewhere on the album. However, the main body of the track is followed by a warm, ambient segment that ends the album perfectly.
All of the band members are in top form for 'Crystal Mass', with highlights belonging to all. Edward's always enrapturing voice is at a new level (as also evidenced by his recent solo album, 'Red Letters'). Martijn's return to an electric guitar style in the vein of 'Last Man to Fly' allows him to shine, as does his violin. The detailed drum and percussion production is indicative of cEvin's best work. The only major disappointment is the unfortunately minor involvement of Niels Van Hoornblower, who was responsible for so many wonderful moments on 'To Be an Angel…' The sequencing of the tracks seems a bit less than optimum, hampering some of the delicate transfers of emotion. While it would have been easy for the Tear Garden to record another album in the style of their past works the reemphasis of electronics and the surprise transition to a dark mood of 'Crystal Mass' sees them exploring a new path in their continuing musical journey. This album is simply a must for all Pink Dots, Skinny Puppy, and Tear Garden fans. Those who were more intrigued by the collaboration's earlier electronic work than their last album will most likely be pleasantly surprised. Fans of cEvin's work in Download may enjoy the 'technoy' approach to some of the more electronic tracks. I believe this album is a must-have not only for LPD and Skinny Puppy fans of all tastes, but for all smart music fans.
*It seems quite possible that in addition to the mastering error of tracks 4 and 5, the song titles for "Castaway" and "Her Majesty's Trusted Food Taster" were reversed in the track listing. For the sake of clarity, I have used the titles as they appear on the artwork here.