Crate-Digging: Seaven Teares – Power Ballads

pwer ballads

(Northern Spy, 2013)

I’m going to try to get this out of the way as quickly as possible, because I want to be respectful of Seaven Teares and their remarkable skill at this, but I’ll tell you right now: I’ve spent a lot of time at Renaissance Faires. A lot of time. More than I’d probably care to admit, but when you have friends who are literally blacksmiths and make kickass knives and stuff (and other D&D fiends who just like to dress up and drink beer), you tend to while away late-summer Saturdays in the company of bards and wenches. And to be honest, there’s a stigma leveled at the Ren Faire crowd, especially by the metropolitan, that paints them as simple and unlogical and begrudges them for their tireless devotion to, essentially, playing dress-up. It’s not cool to be earnest about anything, and a dedication to medieval speech patterns and “goofy” character isn’t gonna win you hip points.

Exhibit A in my sad little geek life: The fact that one of the first things that I connected this album to is Game of Thrones episode 3.2, wherein it’s revealed that the character of Tom O’Sevens, the rebel bard, has been eliminated from the screenplay in favor of an expanded role for Thoros of Myr, whose character has gained a lovely singing voice, should tell you all you need to know about where I’m coming from here.

But placing Seaven Teares in the context of Ren Faires vs. modern culture doesn’t matter, regardless of how many extra Ren-Faire-y vowels they have in their band name. (They’re from New York anyway. Go figure.) It’s not about whether or not Ren Faires are cool (they are) or whether or not they’re even relevant to this conversation (they sort of are), but rather it’s about how Seaven Teares exists blissfully in the mix, and whether or not they want to fit into any mix. The level of irony is zero, there is no dress-up, and if you decide you want to make fun of the whole thing, I doubt the band would even pay you the slightest bit of attention. Hardcore fans on the other hand – well, let’s just say you could easily get maced for heckling a Seaven Teares performance, and I ain’t talking about pepper spray.

I think we’ve established my own personal context here, but what about the actual music? Vocalist/guitarist/synth manipulator Charlie Looker spent time honing his crazy in ZS and Extra Life, but it’s his restraint here that’s more notable when compared to his past work. He sings in an even baritone, mixed high, and is complemented well by “experimental” vocalist (whatever that means) Amirtha Kidambi of Sequins and Skeletons. I wouldn’t call Kidambi’s contributions experimental here at all – her steady, higher-register voice works well in unison with Looker’s, and she more than holds her own on solo passages. It’s tempting to level late-1960s and 1970s folk adjectives and comparisons at the two, but there’s something that transcends those artists, a danger or a mystery evoking something far more out of time and place than the turbulent American politics of the era.

“Meet Me” [live] (Northern Spy Records)

It’s no secret that medieval music is the starting point for Seaven Teares’ compositions – I basically bashed you over the helm with a broadaxe on that count – and it’s exciting to experience the energy a modern representation of it conjures. That instruments like harmonium, portative organ, and recorder can seamlessly exist alongside synthesizer and modern guitar techniques as well as they do is a testament to the band’s skill. Multi-instrumentalist Robbie Lee and percussionist Russell Greenberg add weight and depth to the ballads, and the four musicians together routinely stretch their performances on Power Ballads past the six- and seven-minute marks, allowing the songs to linger like incantations, drawing power from each additional second they last. I’ve often said that bands whose long songs feel short are doing something right, and Seaven Teares lands right in that group – how else can I explain why chamber hymn “Thin Veil,” which closes the album at almost ten minutes in length, makes me wish that it would go on for another ten? Its magic is dark, dangerous, unknown yet intoxicating, and, like the songs preceding it, places me right in the period it’s meant to recreate.

I wouldn’t be lying to you if I said that this is pretty dirgey stuff – “Grown Woman” and “Like Your Black Hair,” in particular, give off a cold and harrowing feel, and let’s face it, Britain in the 1400s and 1500s isn’t a terribly welcoming place for the common folk. The ambience is appropriately oppressive, and gloom filters through the relatively acoustic set in the form of synthesizer and electronics, but these elements are barely noticeable as such. “Flow My Tears” is actually from the era, the tune written by “depressive Renaissance composer John Dowland” in 1596,* and it carries the weight of history in it, as flutes and recorders accompany Looker, and not much else. And speaking of “depressive,” “Them Bones” is, in fact, the Alice in Chains song, and is even more terrifying in this context than AIC likely intented: as the words are pulled and stretched over a drone, a frightening loneliness emerges, laid bare of the crushing guitars and shouty scare tactics Layne Staley and co. employed. In the hands of Seaven Teares, it’s a masterpiece.

*Quoted from Northern Spy’s promo materials.

It’s not all chanting monks and head-whacking (I swore I wouldn’t reference The Holy Grail, and look, like scum, I just can’t help myself), as “Our Lady of Sound” is positively upbeat in comparison, a nice break in the album. But again, who really needs a break? Power Ballads succeeds on its own, within its own skin and among its own kind, or, even among the relatively more mainstream. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe that’s the thing about this style, like the Ren Faire, it’s perpetually on the outside. I guess there’s enough interest though – hell, I’m pushing it on you, aren’t I? I think you should listen to it. If you’re reading this, I’m now casting some kind of black magic at you: Buuuuuuy Seaaaaaven Teeeeares’ Pooooower Baaaaaallads… Did you buy it?

… Hey … is that the album cover? What on earth is up with the cover?

RIYL: Current 93, Angels of Light, Death in June

“Them Bones” [live] @ Whitehaus


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