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Sickoakes - Seawards

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Artist: Sickoakes

Album: Seawards

Label: Type

Review date: Feb. 7, 2006

Seawards, by the Swedish instrumental outfit Sickoakes, is challenging like no other new album of 2006 – bearing in mind that the year is young. It’s early enough that such assumptions can be bandied about without care or consequence. It’s also irresponsible and cheap. And it’s that same irresponsibility, that thriftiness of self, that will ultimately keep this band from prevailing for the now.

It’s hard to tell how much of this type of post-Mogwai, post-Godspeed You! Black Emperor, post-Explosions in the Sky, post-Mum/Sigur Ros music the free market can bear. But it’s also safe to say that the workaday fan of the genres practiced by all those above have plenty to get excited about. There are enough ideas that float by over this hour to stock full careers of the less careful. Judging from this debut album, which follows some import vinyl singles and demo downloads, Sickoakes don’t deal in the orchestral coronaries of Godspeed, or the swollen pledges of allegiance delivered by Explosions. For starters, the group explores themes outside the chamber, giving them the luxury of space and the benefit of an impeccable recording – simple themes, modal in nature and submerged in digital effects, charged by minimalism and repetition. The band features two guitars, two saxophones, bass and drums, and a variety of strings, woodwinds, glockenspiels, and music boxes all locked down with an austerity that in no way could be referred to as “crystalline.” These parts flow with a steadiness of hand that none of their contemporaries can claim, even with the luxury of computers at hand to quantize and time-stretch their measures. Performances don’t swell without a proper introduction; only two, “Oceans on Hold” and the over 20-minute “Wedding Rings & Bullets in the Same Golden Shrine (Part II)” raise at all to the abundance of sound for which their genre has become infamous. By and large, concentration and concern tuck the covers in. Themes ring out with a mannered precision – like the ebbing, repetitive coda of “Taking the Stairs Instead of the Elevator” – seldom heard since the new-age peaks of musicians such as Cluster or Manuel Göttsching. Those who’ve heard Göttsching’s classic E2-E4 album will have no trouble recognizing certain patterns of similarity, and those who swear by the last two Talk Talk and Mark Hollis’s solo LPs will find a group who understood their designs on space and minimalism within the confines of the album side. Directions that needed to be more closely embraced at their time of inception, which few have been wise enough to pick up on; this could be the band to pick up that ball and run with it, adopt another layer of formalism to their craft and make something old snap back to life.

And yet they take the other path: pop. There’s a certain pain in knowing that musicians stopped short en route to becoming a worthwhile singularity, and then glazed an everyman veneer over it. That so much here avoids cliché is derailed by an overtly Edge/Coldplay-like guitar of “Oceans on Hold,” taking things to where the streets once had no name, and even though it levels out to a satisfyingly choppy half-pace shuffle in the last five minutes, it’s that anticipation of exactly what you expected – like peeking at birthday presents hidden in your own house – that sinks the track altogether. There’s also a tendency for these boys to layer field recordings and sound bites throughout the album, and for something this careful, you’d think the mumblings of a man outdoors or the sound of boots crunching down snow might offset an already delicate balance. They do; it’ll get this disc onto iPods, you’ll hear worse in all the kids with samplers who want to be the next Isis (who in the same position five years ago would have opted for fall-down, white-belt screamo) but it really seems beneath a band with this much potential to pander in such ways, especially when they have the hundred-sided dice of “Missiles and Mammals” or the Polynesian singing saw slide guitar drizzling over “Driftwood” presenting a truer innovation right near them.

It’s not every group that can construct a leaden four-note sub-atomic blues theme that hangs like a cold front in a valley and alchemically reduce it to a golden three in such a way as Sickoakes does on the expanse of “Wedding Rings and Bullets.” That the song wears itself out in such a way would be so much more interesting to hear without the stormier segments connecting the two. It’ll make you wish that the time spent on Seawards improving this genre of music would have factored in finishing the job. They didn’t have to paint so broad a stroke.

By Doug Mosurock

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