From Dreams or Angels

Something New and Danceable This Way Comes

Recorded by Abney Park; Reviewed by Kai MacTane

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Title: From Dreams or Angels
Artist: Abney Park
Label: self-released
Freak Nation Rating:
Buy It From: the band’s web site

Those who think there’s nothing new, original or creative happening in the world of gothic rock haven’t heard the sounds of Abney Park. As showcased on From Dreams or Angels, their music definitely knows its roots, and can trace a clear line of descent back to the Sisters of Mercy or the Cure. But it’s not content to re-hash what other artists did decades ago; instead, it pushes into the future and creates something unique and new.

Singer/songwriter Robert Brown is apparently the driving creative force behind the band. His baritone range seems to alternate between the deep, growly male vocals that have been de rigeur since the days of Eldritch and Murphy, and a lighter, almost whispering or ethereal quality that’s reminiscent of ghosts or spirits of some sort. He uses this ability to wonderful effect on “Thornes & Brambles”, to create the effect of a song about deforestation that’s sung from the forest’s point of view. “Black rivers hard as stone, lined with corpses of our own,” he intones as the song opens, sounding like the forest’s regrets given voice.

But this not a one-man vanity project: Brown’s intro simply sets the stage. Then an eerie flute line starts winding like a will-o’- the-wisp between the bass and the drumbeats. Then Traci Nemeth’s backing vocals come in behind him, whispering like some feral woodland creature, and you start looking around to see if vines are starting to creep up the walls of your apartment yet.

Abney Park consistently succeeds at creating deep, lush atmospheres that are given life by their complex and richly-layered use of multiple instruments. In addition to the flute mentioned above, there are also appearances on the album by doumbek, maracas, piano, and various synthesized sounds and samples, aside from the traditional guitar, bass and Western drum kit.

Given the lushness and rich density of the artwork the band uses on their CD, jewel case, and web site, the richly layered sonic textures seem like a deliberate choice that springs from the same aesthetic core. But it also has the useful side effect of helping cover up for the fact that this band doesn’t have a full-time drummer. The closest it’s got is Brown playing the doumbek. They don’t let that stop them from putting a full Western-style drum kit into their music, though; apparently the rest of the drum sounds are created on a drum machine, and then bassist Krysztof Nemeth (presumably husband of Traci) fills in the rest of the rhythm section.

From Dreams or Angels Track List:
  1. The Root of All Evil
  2. Tiny Monster
  3. Holy War
  4. Kine
  5. Breathe
  6. Hush
  7. Thornes & Brambles
  8. Child King
  9. The Box
  10. Twisted & Broken
  11. Breathe (acoustic)

It seems like the rest of the band fills in for the missing drums, too — at the beginning of “Kine”, for example, the rhythm kicks in almost immediately, even when the only instruments in use are the guitar and bass. Nemeth and guitarist Robert Hazelton kick a buzzing, thumping set of chords back and forth between them, forming a pulsating rhythm that gives just enough of a framework for dancing. Given the versatility of modern keyboards, it’s impossible to tell just where they’re being used, but I suspect keyboardist Kristina Erickson helps out with the rhythm on occasion, as well.

However they do it, Abney Park manages to completely cover up the fact that the only actual drum they’ve got is their frontman’s doumbek. It’s really quite impressive. I’ve been listening to their music — and even playing it in clubs — for nearly three years now, and I didn’t realize their near-drummerless condition until I sat down to write this review.

There are, unfortunately, times when they go a bit too far in their layering. “Holy War”, for example, starts with a driving, heart-pumping rhythm and hypnotically flowing vocals that describe life in a war-torn city. Eventually, some audio clips from news services are used to spice it up, but they go too far: between multiple anchormen and announcers layered over helicopter rotors and howling dogs, it becomes almost impossible to make out the thread of the song itself any more. On “Kine”, the eerie, piping flute in the background is a nice touch, but it’s simply mixed too loud.

But while these mistakes detract somewhat from the overall effect and quality, they’re by no means fatal. And they’re more than made up for by standout tracks like “Thornes & Brambles”, “Breathe” (in either its original or acoustic version — and I don’t usually like acoustic or unplugged tracks), and “The Box”. In “Hush”, in particular, they get the balance just right, blending an unusual, asymmetrical bass line with strange warbles and ringing chimes that interweave with the female backing vocals to achieve just the right level of complexity. Finally, the excessive layering and occasional mixing problems I’ve mentioned are the sorts of flaws that can be expected of a young, independent band creating on their own.

The design of the liner notes and the artwork on the CD itself make it clear that these folks don’t have any kind of big-label backing: if they did, those backers would want credit, and there isn’t any. When you look at the CD and jewel case inserts, you won’t find any fine print. There’s no copyright information, no legal disclaimers, no naming of record labels, recording studios, no “Compact Disc Digital Audio” logo (even though the disc plays just fine in any audio player, and would undoubtedly meet Phillips’ requirements)... all the teensy, nearly subliminal indicators of life in an overlawyered and un-self-consciously mercantile society are completely absent from this disc and its packaging.

On the one hand, this absence of legalisms and logos gives you a clue that the disc is a somewhat amateur effort — which is a good thing, because it’d otherwise be hard to tell; the minor problems I described above are the only other clues that this work is anything less than professional. And on the other hand, it just adds to Abney Park’s general air of mystery and otherworldliness. (For example, the band’s web site doesn’t include last names anywhere; I had to find that information on a completely separate site devoted to promoting northwestern musicians.)

Goth music does still have a future, and Abney Park is going to be a major part of it. If they can polish the few remaining rough edges off their music, they have the potential to bring a fresh, new sound to gothic dance floors everywhere.

Kai MacTane is the Freak Nation’s webmaster. When he isn’t wrangling content or hacking PHP for the site, he’s been dabbling as a goth-industrial DJ in San Francisco for the past few years. He’s found that Abney Park’s music will usually get the crowd up and dancing. He can’t help but wonder what they’re like in concert.