Few records conjure up such specific imagery as Denton act The Angelus do on their long-awaited debut album, On A Dark & Barren Land. Listening to it, you could swear that lead singer Emil Rapstine has lived his life alone on a desolate, rural landscape in the l800s. Doom-ridden songs about death, burial and turning to stone have more in common with Cormac McCarthy's The Road than with any other recent pieces of music from North Texas.
That novel comparison has already been made about this record, though. In press materials supporting the release, Cocteau Twins member and Bella Union Records label head Simon Raymonde says On A Dark & Barren Land "feels like every single song is a chapter from a truly important novel." Raymonde has long been known for his obsession with Denton acts; before he "discovered" Midlake, he hit an artistic gold mine with Lift To Experience, a clear influence on The Angelus. No surprise, then, that Josh T. Pearson, former Lift frontman, was brought in to produce the record.
His work here is not too far from his work in Lift To Experience — religious metaphors and epic, guitar-echoing songs are all intact — but this is no rehash. The Angelus' take is much darker, thanks in large part to Rapstine's distinct vocals, which give On A Dark & Barren Land more character than any thunderous guitars or minor-key chord changes could.
The album's first track, "All Is Well," sees a choir of Rapstine's vocal tracks accompanied by little more than an ambient drone. The instrumental "Latin I" follows with a terror-inducing build. The album's only bright spot, "Sudden Burst Of Hope," is exactly that — a downpour of relief after a journey through a difficult yet effective record that is painfully bleak and equally fascinating.
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This certainly isn't an easy-listening album, but within the first few notes it succeeds in setting a mood and transferring the feeling suggested by the title.