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Arbouretum - Coming Out of the Fog

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Artist: Arbouretum

Album: Coming Out of the Fog

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Jan. 17, 2013

Arbouretum - “World Split Open”

Dave Heumann’s Arbouretum is arguably the best of the millennial classic rock bands, a guitar-fuzzed powerhouse that follows Neil Young’s trampled trail, bending folk and country into surreal shapes through the sheer force of volume and distortion. Coming Out of the Fog is Arbouretum’s fifth full-length, and it is not quite a complaint to say that it is more of the same. Heumann has placed more emphasis on song structure this time out, less on open-ended, jammed improvisation, and the recording quality continues to improve. Still, the basic template is not much different from Rites of Uncovering. As always, these are loud, slow, ponderously heavy songs that explore the conjunction of feedback buzz and intellectual inquiry, 16-bar blues and spiritual struggle.

“World Split Open” is the most blistering of these songs, a corrosive stew of guitar tones stripped down almost past the note, so that they’re all crackle and static and hardly any melody. The drums, too, are hard and confrontational, a quickfire volley of kick drum and snare erupting, occasionally, from a nailed-down relentless beat. Heumann’s voice floats over the blare, a serene, modal tune wafting through turmoil, a bit like Young’s singing threaded through the fever of “Down By the River.”

Heumann’s way of taking a folk song and making it roar comes to the front with “The Promise.” This song, with its rampaging, rust-tipped guitar riff, sounds like anything but a murder ballad. Yet, though not a cover, exactly, it’s loosely based on the traditional “Demon Lover” (a.k.a. “James Harris,” a.k.a. “House Carpenter”). “Oceans Don’t Sing,” just after, sounds considerably more traditional. Here, Heumann’s rough-edged voice is tamed to a murmur, and Baltimorean Dave Hadley coaxes a melancholy twang from pedal steel. The way it builds from whisper to climax is like the tide coming in, gradual, inevitable and awesome.

As guitar slingers go, Heumann is unusually thoughtful and well-read. His last album, The Gathering, got some of its color from his fascination with Carl Jung’s The Red Book. He was reading Colin Dickey’s Afterlives of the Saints while working on Coming Out of the Fog. “Renouncer” considers the extremes of spiritual search, as exemplified by St. Simeon’s 37-year vigil on a column in the Syrian desert. I can’t think of any other rock songs about Christian ascetics, and yet, it’s extremely accessible, describing Simeon’s ordeal in simple, poetic language and wrapping the package in a dense blanket of guitar hiss. You could close your eyes and know that the song was about something important, but still get lost in the dense sonic textures, the inflammatory guitar solo near the end.

Coming Out of the Fog is quite a good album, but it contains no real surprises. Everything you might want from an Arbouretum album is here, except, perhaps, a hint at evolution. For all its turbulence, for all its questing intelligence, Coming Out of the Fog seems to be playing it safe. Don’t get me wrong. I love the formula, but I’d love it more if Arbouretum broke out of it once in a while.

By Jennifer Kelly

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The Gathering

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