Label: The Flenser
Sometimes, there is comfort in the darkness. There are records out there whose content speaks of pain and misery, and wants you, the listener, to know that you’re not alone; to know that things will get better.
How We Lived isn’t one of those albums.
On their second full-length together, the duo of Heinali and Matt Finney have crafted something that may move with a damaged grace and sense of warped beauty; and there may be sounds that shimmer and dance in the haze; but more than that, How We Lived is an album heavy with the sounds of deep-seated sorrow, rooted in the everyday experiences that slowly build up until the burden feels insurmountable. It is a challenging listen, intense in a more emotional rather than musical sense, but it is also a deeply rewarding one, where the void in your soul may stare back at you, but if you’re strong enough to avoid looking away, How We Lived makes for one hell of an experience.
Those familiar with Matt Finney’s work from his many projects (including It Only Gets Worse, and collaborations with Wet Nurse. and Siavash Amini) will have an idea of what to expect from his spoken word contributions. His bleak, matter-of-fact recollections and statements add an explicitly human, almost accessible edge to the drone and dark ambient electronica that makes up the core sound of How We Lived. Stories about domestic collapse (‘Relationship Goals’), suicidal emptiness (‘October Light’), imagined memories (‘Perfect Blue’), and disillusionment (‘Wilderness’) add a concrete narrative to that suggested by the surrounding soundscapes, and provide points of focus for each of the four tracks. Despite their heavy, bleak subject matter, they also provide something accessible – something for listeners to grab hold of and cling to amongst the dreamy/nightmarish surroundings.
These spoken word sections not only provide a solid narrative for the tracks, but also compliment the music. It’s not that Heinali’s drones, avant-garde electronica, and dark ambient needs anything extra – it’s more than strong enough to stand on its own – but the contrast between the two elements serves them both well, making each more effective and emotionally devastating than it otherwise might be.
Remarkably for music of this type, there is a deeply emotional edge to it. The building tension in the background drone of ‘Wilderness’ is a prime example, lending an uncomfortable anxiety to the damaged melodies that take the lead as the track progresses; whilst the synths of opener ‘Relationship Goals’ shimmer with equal parts beauty and dread, heavy with the tension of a tragedy that can be seen coming, but cannot possibly be prevented. ‘October Light’ may be more gentle, being more on the dark ambient side of the duo’s sound, but there is still a human aspect there, that becomes more clear as frantic, crashing drums and cymbals emerge from the background, their anxiety almost unbearable until they suddenly stop. By contrast, closer ‘Perfect Blue’ is characterised by noise-damaged dread right from its first moments, twisted melodies rising out of the static like warnings that came too late to be heeded. Even without Matt Finney’s spoken word segments, these would be emotionally devastating tracks; but with them, they become something far more punishing, filled with despair, and the terrible knowledge that things will not get better.
As this suggests, it is a difficult listen, even by the standards already set for the genre and those involved. It is an album that offers no comfort or solace, and will not help pull you out of whatever negative cycle you find yourself in. Yet, there is something deeply rewarding about it; it is never musically harsh enough to become an endurance test, but reaching the end feels as if some great emotional trial has been passed; and though you might not feel stronger or necessarily better for it, there is still an emotional reward, albeit one that is hard to define. And that’s without considering that the music itself is, quite simply, really, really good; and whilst How We Lived is one of the year’s most emotionally punishing albums, it’s also one of it’s best.