I’m searching for an exit, but all too often there is nowhere to go. There is nowhere to turn, no hope of getting away from its shiftless grasp without the use of a figurative flashlight. It comes in forms thick and weary, wrapping itself tight around even the most minute of micro-genres, yet it remains discernible only in the instinctive mind that makes it so. But what is “dark” music anyway? Surely describing an album as “dark” is as useful as calling it plain “good” or “bad” or something synonymous, right? Well, perhaps, but so much can also be said for illustrating the tone or shade of a specific piece, and in this respect, defining the way a sound feels remains an important factor. However, “dark” seems to be used a great deal in order to emphasize certain textures while acting as a trigger word, which needs to be addressed in most part due to its common usage.
I wonder if the term retains any significant value and whether or not it proves practical, even if somewhat lazy. Take Raime’s Quarter Turns, whose slow and beckoning mawk had a hand-basket of reviewers, myself included, recalling images of bleak environments, void of any sunlight. “Dark” in this context seems appropriate, if not a little flabby. In other instances, that needn’t be so; like most aural description, “darkness” is of course illusory, an adjective attributed to the imagery it inspires. Such terms are considered slack, weightless, and on a par with haphazardly pigeonholing musicians who embrace abhorrent themes (see: black metal, horrorcore etc.). This is doubly striking when lyrics aren’t available in attributing cohesive subtextual reference points, but does that render purely expressive vocab useless?
In the case of Mark Templeton’s latest, an abject descriptor such as the one lassoed above would fall flat on its face, despite how tempted one might be to apply it with an accordance de rigueur. Not only because Jealous Heart, the second chapter in this Canadian artist’s “heart”-titled trilogy, is so elaborate and intricately composed — pulling on a number of electro-acoustic layers as it does so delightfully — but also because the atmosphere refuses to conform to terms attributing a specific shade. Bearing that in mind, it also ticks a few boxes, which may induce slapdash response:
- The album is made up of downtempo, instrumental pieces.
- Each track bears a nostalgia for tape cassettes.
- There lies a distinct fondness for deep, low-end frequencies.
However, Templeton also makes wonderful use of smooth trumpet samples, which curdle across acoustic guitar strings in a fashion that feels warm and alive. Those nostalgic forms come embroiled in a context of material appreciation for the handling and physical texture of a once near obsolete format as opposed to a stubborn inwardness, remorse or longing for it.
Indeed, Jealous Heart harbors just as much nostalgia for tape as The Caretaker’s Empty Bliss did for old ballroom 78s, and it explores that sentimentality in a similar vain: by confronting the styles and the format most candidly. On the record at hand, this is accomplished extraordinarily well through the hushed haze of “Matinee.” The comparison also holds water in that, like James Kirby, Templeton is exploring states of change that people have no control over, such as aging. But each set of results is different, due mostly to the latter pursuing a contemplative angle as opposed to an investigative one.
The music therefore reveals itself as insular because of the echoic and fetishist grip residing in the sluggish, looped vocals; the clicking of buttons; and the speeding of reels on “Once We Were Down,” which fastens analogue whirring with ambient jazz trumpets. A physical relationship with the cassettes is demonstrated in their being used as a tool for summoning shaded textures in, say, an underground space. On “Kingdom Key,” it appears as though the artist is scrunching the material in his hands as the spools are peeled across a manipulated vocal loop. There is nothing bleak or sinister about the concept; it exposes a humbling degree of exploration, propelled by the combination of electro-acoustic hashing and hollow vocal segments.
The centerpiece on this magical affair lies on “Flat3,” which is like the left ventricle of the Jealous Heart, pumping oxygen into surrounding tracks through a combination of fragile keystrokes and smoldering feedback. Such effects are set against a distinct fascination for the use of echo, which is wonderfully reflected through mixing enough repetition to breed familiarity but with enough spark not to ignite contempt. The interlacing of beautiful strings and rushed tape samples on “Buffalo Coulee” constitutes my favorite example of this, where piano keys and percussion are pulled back repeatedly alongside distorted vocals. A balanced amount of distinction can be found throughout each rep to warrant an aching degree of wonder, which is triumphant when acknowledging the track’s brevity. Loops are subtly altered during playback to create a fresh environment for the shattered remnants of guitar chords, trumpets, and spool commands, and despite the driving of pistons, which is encountered with industrial force on “Carved and Cared For,” the mood is far too tangled in the artist’s brimming sense of experimentation to justify the use of tainted terminology. And even if “Straits” does conjure images of a distant woodland, where the moon is out and the sun is sinking, the scenery is skewed, hazy perhaps, but certainly not dark.