Review: Dirty Three – Toward the Low Sun
Published on March 23rd, 2012 | Nick Cole-Hamilton
I recently discovered quite by chance that Australia’s post-rockers par excellence Dirty Three had announced a number of tour dates in the UK later this year, and were also putting together a new album, their first release in seven years. For around two years they have been one of my favourite bands, so as you can imagine I was rather excited by this news. I began reading rumours which suggested that the format of this album would be closer to that of their older efforts, abandoning the more regimented song structures of 2005’s Cinder for simple, live recording. And with such rumours, my excitement did snowball.
Then, tracks began to appear on YouTube. I found it impossible to resist getting a sneak peak at the new material, but when I did, I wasn’t totally sure I liked what I heard. Out of context, the tracks I listened to (“Rising Below”, “The Pier”, and “Rain Song”, comprising the middle section of the album) sounded vague and somewhat half-hearted, seemingly lacking the searing intensity and heart-breaking melancholia of the band’s previous efforts. I began to wonder if it were possible that recording this album was mistake. Cinder wasn’t their best effort, but should they have just left it at that? Would the rest of the album make more sense of what I had heard? Deep down I began to fear it wouldn’t.
I was also troubled by the cover art of the new album. Mick Turner has produced some beautiful paintings in his time, and while the image of a regal figure, prone on his dead horse and being crushed by the dragon he’s slaying is certainly striking, I found its deliberate, childlike style somewhat off-putting. As if it were something more suited to an Aardman animation than a Dirty Three album.
I had slightly longer to wait than I anticipated (Amazon was a little over-optimistic on their estimated date of delivery, quoting a date two weeks before the album would even be released) and when the album finally arrived, I didn’t listen to it immediately. By that point, I was pre-emptively grieving over their failure. I had passed through shock, denial, anger, and despair, and was lodged somewhere, unhappily, between numbness and acceptance.
Time passed, and I finally mustered the presence of mind to give the album a listen, rather than just write it off. It took a couple of times listening through from start to finish to reach the place I’m at now, but let me tell you, it’s a pretty good place. What follows is a (somewhat florid and potentially unbiased, I admit) rundown of each track on Toward the Low Sun, as they come.
The opening track spills from the speakers, a rumbling fever dream two steps from total disintegration. If one instrument were missing from this piece, it feels like the whole thing would just fall apart; a daring way to open the album, and no mistake. Frantic drums jostle with a deranged, hypnotic loop (guitar? Mandocaster? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is making that sound), while half-formed violin lines and guitar stabs colour in the madness, bolstered towards the end of the song by spasmodic organ flourishes. At first, “Furnace Skies” seems haphazard and off-the-cuff, but upon further listening it appears charged with furious and well executed intention. As balls-y and righteous an opening track as they come.
“Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone”
The drums of “Furnace Skies” seem to spill over into this next song, continuing the notion of the fever; but here it has broken, and we are cooled and soothed by slow-washing cymbal crashes as guitar and piano enjoy a tender and delicate conversation. As the exchange progresses, the drums begin to pull tighter on the lead, stirring rather than agitating the melodic interchange between key and string. So far, still pretty good.
“Moon on the Land”
At this point, a steady rhythm comes as a surprise, with Jim White’s bright woodblock hits colouring the piece. Turner’s nylon string guitar rolls beautifully as Ellis’s violin lilts a soft, almost Celtic melody, emboldened by an unexpected Mellotron chorus line. Relaxing and melancholy, this is the Dirty Three doing what they do best, yet still carving away into bold new territory.
This is the first track of the album that I heard, and I didn’t much like the sound of it. That being said, I like it better and better each time I listen to it. There is a cool, summer breeziness and ever so slightly woozy feeling to this song, brought about by its drunken fly-style violin lines. Here we have a slow burn where Dirty Three demonstrate they have no need to rush; as always, the journey is the part worth staying for. As the track progresses, tensions rise, and an innocent summer flirtation becomes a more impassioned affair, ending (as the best affairs do) all too soon.
With a title symbolic of departure and separation, this song conjures the notion of a kind of ‘no place’; a port town with no sea, or a desert with no sand. Cymbal crashes stretch out this dynamic yet intimate number and guitar twangs away peacefully as violin tunefully ruminates, before all drops to barely a whisper, almost nothing, only to rise and reassemble itself in an instant. To call “The Pier” evocative doesn’t really do it justice. At times it is tender, at times it is almost frantic, yet it is so subtle that on first hearing this track I barely knew what to make of it.
Brushed drums set the stage for this song, as mandolin strums create spots of rain while nylon strings and violins play their respective roles perfectly. Beautiful, sad, moving and thoughtful; this is everything fans have come to love about the Dirty Three, yet here the song is driven not by fiery passion but by passion cooled to wisdom, and executed with the grace and ease of a passing shower. Understated yet transformative, this is another track I severely overlooked upon first inspection. I have only myself to blame.
“That Was Was”
When I first read the title of this track I thought to myself, “Someone’s got that wrong”; and indeed I saw several websites erroneously naming this song “That Was That”. Whatever the deal with the title is, it refuses analysis in a way befitting of the music it names. This track is effortlessly raucous yet retains a certain kind of chaotic composure. To me, this song is where rock should be right now. The energy of the band’s previous endeavours shines through here, augmented with new skill and abandon. Ellis excels on his violin, striking riffs which are both tender and deformed, as Turner and White structure a straight up, rock out affair. Grand stuff, indeed.
Drum, nylon string, flute and Piano hold gentle court on this aching beauty, and if you’re not almost in tears by the time the violin kicks in…well, then you’re probably not as big a Dirty Three fan as I am. This song hearkens back to the melancholic beauty of “Hope” from 1996’s Horse Stories album (my sometimes favourite Dirty Three song, often jostling with “Everything’s Fucked”) but it does not repeat what has already been done. Beautiful and cinematic, this song is the highlight of the album, and potentially their career.
“You Greet Her Ghost”
The final song on Toward the Low Sun has a definite ‘welcome to the end of the album’ feel to it, but the band has no intention of rushing us out just yet; there’s plenty more to be said. Drums rumble as guitar and violin meanderings coalesce into being, evaporate, condense and boil off once again with effervescent beauty which finally begins to overflow, just before ending. This is a wonderful end to an album which has taken me completely by surprise. Regarding the title of this track, I first took it to be gloomy and ominous, sounding a little like something from a Cradle of Filth album; however I have since formed the opinion that it implies a much more accidental greeting, as if while doing the dishes you notice someone moving out of the corner of your eye and, mistaking it for someone expected, you express a greeting, only to come to understand later that you had been alone in the house all day. Just a thought, but I feel it fits well with the tone of the song.
I honestly don’t think there is a weak track on this album. I’ve tried to imagine other ways this album could have been done, but really, I don’t think I can. At times it can be a little frustrating, and at times I just can’t be bothered listening to a full album of instrumental music, but as soon as I get a few tracks in, I know I’m going to wind up listening to the whole thing. Unlike Cinder, which was a rather rambling affair and sometimes hard to keep pace with, this album is just the right length, ending just before it feels like it should, leaving the listener satisfied but wanting more. The album artwork has grown on me as well; it’s different, daring and certainly not what I expected, but it works. Just like the album itself.
Although I am rather biased towards the Dirty Three and therefore more likely to be in favour of this album, regardless of its content, I genuinely think it’s a positive addition to their body of work. Concise, well-crafted and varied in tone, at no point do Dirty Three repeat the same old tricks which have served them so well. While Toward the Low Sun is lacking the post-rock pyrotechnics of their earlier works, there is a craft and subtlety to this album which is unmistakably new, and makes it hard to believe that they’ve been around for twenty years. I am thoroughly looking forward to seeing them play in London later this summer, and I especially look forward to hearing these tracks performed live.
Rocksucker says: Seven-and-a-Half Quails out of Ten!