Thursday, November 26, 2009

Review: Dragon Turtle, Almanac

(Originally posted on
"Casualty," the opening track on Dragon Turtle's Almanac, starts out as mellow bedroom folk, not unlike Iron and Wine. Around the four-minute mark, discordant guitar squalls and feedback are introduced, and continue for another ear-splitting four minutes. What began as a gentle idyll turns dark, sinister, and unsettling.

This contrast continues throughout the entire album, including the album cover imagery of a double helix ablaze. Just as fire can be both comforting and destructive, Almanac can be soothing and disturbing. There is a constant tension between tranquility and violence, and harmony and chaos in their music. It's like watching a mild-mannered person explode into rage; you are forever wary that beneath the calm exterior there is a pool of anger bubbling up. It puts you on edge, so that even during quietest moments of the album, you are waiting for the discord.

The band is made up of Brian Lightbody and Tom Asselin, and rounded out by several contributing musicians. Lightbody lives in Brooklyn and Asselin lives in rural Pennsylvania, explaining the bipolar nature of their music. The chaos and noise of New York City is contrasted with the peace and quiet of the boonies.

The Brooklyn connection makes sense, since like fellow Brooklynites Grizzly Bear, Dragon Turtle uses folk music as a jumping off point for experimentation. However, rather than going in a psychedelic, harmonizing direction like Grizzly Bear, Dragon Turtle embraces ambient music. They describe themselves as "Ambient-Winter-Calypso-Space-Folk," which isn't that far of the mark.

"Island of the Broken Glass" starts off with acoustic guitar and heavily reverbed vocals, then adds congos, electric guitar, and other instruments. Each sound is stacked on top of the other, so that the initial melody gradually devolves into bedlam. "Belt of Venus" is a ghost of song that is slowly filled out during it's three minute lifespan. "Hourglass" takes the same concept, only stretches it out over ten minutes, filling out the initial musical idea with more and more strata of sound.

"Moon Fallout" goes in the opposite direction. It begins with cacophony and whittles down so that the feedback and wailing saw become part of the melody. There are moments that are incredibly delicate: "Organ Fallout" takes a simple piano melody and backs it with washes of noise, samples, and other eerie sounds; "Hometime" is three minutes of lightly plucked acoustic guitar.

The key word that comes to mind while listening to Almanac is texture. While the core of song may be a simple melody played on acoustic guitar with vocals buried deep in the mix, they are layered with instruments, sounds, and ideas.

Asselin is credited with providing "atmospheres" to several tracks, and congas, trumpets, pianos, hammond organs, saws, cellos, a sax, and an erhu are layered into the nine songs on the album. The eleven-minute-long "Hourglass" even credits two people as "dancers."

The result of all of these contributions are songs with depth and complexity. Rather than pop songs, they are compositions, offering the new discoveries and experiences with each listen.

Almanac can be a challenging record. Adding elements of noise into an ambient record might be invigorating for listeners who are into chaos, but discordant tracks like "Casualty" and the apocalyptic "Apophis" can be annoying, jarring contrasts to the calmer tone of the bulk of the album. Also, the sense of dread and disquiet running throughout the album can make it hard to digest.

I've been listening to Almanac over and over, and I hear the album a little differently each time. So much of pop music has been clinically perfected, it's refreshing to hear an album that avoids that sterile spotlessness and doesn't give away all of its secrets at once.

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