Rivers gathers two EPs released on vinyl earlier this year, Retina and Iris, and plays them back to back. Uniting them makes good sense for all sorts of reasons, but presenting them as distinct pieces in the first place was the crafty move: they’re not really all that polarized, but that separation brings out differences and affinities that would have been unnoticed if the songs were jumbled together, and that would have been moot if the EPs had remained separate. Retina is close and cloistered, which makes the slow-burn momentum of Iris feels fresh and energetic; the songs on Iris embrace their place as actual songs, which makes the byzantine compositions of Retina seem restive and challenging. Luckily, or shrewdly, Rivers makes Wildbirds & Peacedrums sound resourceful where it could have made them sound scatterbrained.
“Bleed Like There Was No Other Flood” sets an admirable tone, Mariam Wallentin’s throaty coo and Andreas Werliin’s nervous percussion feeling their way through a velvety darkness lined with intersecting choral tones. But that early magnificence is quick to contract and dry up on the rest of Retina: “Tiny Holes In This World” clomps around indecisively, while “Under Land and Over Sea” slows to an irritatingly self-indulgent inertia. In its livelier moments, the first half of Rivers shows off a few fascinating audio manipulations and captures some of the forest-dwelling urgency of Bat For Lashes, but on the whole it glosses as a little too lofty, a little too resistant to the idea of deigning to entertain.
But then Iris comes along and begins to frame what was good about all that: without changing the melodic or lyrical preoccupations of Retina, it harmonizes the same sparse elements more smoothly, more sensibly. “The Wave” starts the shift, slowly at first (though it immediately highlights Wallentin’s steel drum, the biggest non-figurative difference between the EPs): it still sounds like the very front of a huge dark church, but its tones and melodies begin to burble up toward a simple, careful refrain. From here on, Wildbirds & Peacedrums becomes a band playing music, not an artists’ collective making a statement.
The rest of the songs, up to the teapot-tempest “The Well,” tend to eschew Retina’s manufactured moments of rapture, showing instead how the right pairings of minimal sounds can pass as majestic too. They don’t have the master arcs that their earlier counterparts do, and their linearity makes them seem by turns less directed and less oppressive. This is what ultimately works about Rivers as a whole: an actual coalescence of both EPs’ strengths and excesses would have been welcome too, but this is a convincing tack too, simply because it paints a more convincing picture of the duo’s power and potential than either half could have individually.