It is my long-held belief that the discovery of music is a never-ending series of happy accidents. The pursuit of one thing frequently results in the accidental discovery of something else. Such was the case of one of my happiest musical accidents, the 2015 discovery of an Australian band called We Lost the Sea.
I’m big fan of post-rock. Thanks to the Bandcamp app (and if you don’t have it, what are you waiting for?) I was able to scour thousands of recordings, looking for the next Tortoise of Sigur Ros. I distinctly remember sitting at my kitchen table, working on my forthcoming book, when I happened across this band and their most recent work, called Departure Songs. Since I wasn’t familiar with the band, the album’s title meant nothing to me. But once the music started, I had the distinct feeling I wasn’t listening to a collection of casually cobbled-together instrumentals. Oh, no … there was something much deeper going on here.
We Lost the Sea’s lead singer, Chris Torpy, committed suicide in 2013. The band was deeply affected by the tragedy, and went into a relatively extended hiatus. When they returned, they brought Departure Songs with them. Each song on the album is dedicated to the concept of, as the band puts it, “failed, yet epic and honorable journeys or events throughout history where people have done extraordinary things for the greater good of those around them, and the progress of the human race itself.” This goes a long way toward explaining why I felt each of the songs on a deeply emotional level.
The album’s opener, “A Gallant Gentleman,” sets the tone from Note One. Officially, the song is dedicated to the self-sacrifice made by Captain Lawrence Oates, a former English military officer who was part of a failed expedition to the South Pole led by Robert Falcon Scott, in 1912. While not officially noted in the liner notes, my hunch is that this song was also written with Torpy in mind.
The melody, such as it is, is spacious and open-ended, leaving more than enough room for a lead vocal that never materializes. Instead, the band’s three guitarists (Mark Owen, Matt Harvey, and Brendon Warner) piece together a beautiful motif, lush with reverb and delay. In time, they are joined by a choir, providing backup vocals for that absent lead. Only after three minutes do bassist Kieran Elliott, keyboardist Matthew Kelly, and drummer Nathaniel D’Ugo join them, adding a heavy kick to the song’s tenderness. It’s one of the better first impressions on CD I’ve heard.
Nothing properly prepares the listener for the second (and my favorite) track, “Bogatyri.” It’s 11 minutes and 40 seconds of emotional tension and release. According to Harvey (who also created the album’s artwork), the song’s title refers to three Russian divers who sacrificed themselves by leaping into highly radioactive water inside the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April of 1986. Their leap allowed them to stop the flow of radioactive water from the plant, which unchecked would have triggered a massive explosion capable of contaminating a large portion of Europe. The song already affected me deeply. Knowing this story made it that much more difficult to remain objective.
Once again, the band allows the guitars to set the tone, playing a layered, repeated pattern that reminded me of something Tortoise might play. But unlike my favorite post-rock band, “Bogatyri” builds and builds, growing heavier and heavier. I remember sitting at my computer, typing away as this song played. As the song got heavier, I stopped typing, bobbing my head to the song’s insistent rhythm. Before I knew it, I was engrossed in the piece, the weight of which very nearly moved me to tears. Trite as this may sound, giving this song a listen (preferably with headphones) just may elicit a similar reaction.
The band could have stopped there, as far as I was concerned. But they were just getting warmed up. I now had to brace myself for “The Last Dive of David Shaw.” A world record setting diver, Shaw was in the depths of Boesmansgat, a freshwater cave high in the mountains of South Africa. Before he could break yet another one of his own records, he encountered the body of a diver lost for 10 years named Deon Dreyer. Shaw abandoned his own attempt and returned to the surface, where he prepared to go back and retrieve Dreyer’s body in order to bring the missing man home to his family. Shaw reached the body, but got tangled up in his own dive lines while towing Dreyer’s body back to the surface. Shaw ultimately drowned, with the event being witnessed by members of the press and the diving community. Four days later, Shaw’s body was recovered, still attached to Dreyer. The sounds from that last dive are used by the band to set up their composition.
The song itself is an exercise in controlled groove, with accents being placed perfectly throughout. The song feels as though it could break loose at any second. Naturally, this never happens. For nearly 17 minutes, the listener hears a song awash in determination, countered by a theme of a goal not quite attained. This is not to say the song fails. It merely runs out of time.
The album’s remaining 31 minutes are dedicated to the loss of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds after liftoff in January of 1986. All seven crew members were killed. This event resonates particularly deeply with me, as I am a huge fan of NASA and the space program. I remember hearing about this tragic event while sitting in my college newspaper office, and then racing home to see one of many replays of the explosion on television. It was the first time I got away with swearing in front of my mother, who saw her son sit down hard on the couch, uttering, “Holy shit!” as he did so. The music dedicated to this piece offers a similar emotional wallop.
Like the other songs, “Challenger” builds slowly, awash with the anticipation that leads up to the flight itself. The music takes on a new level of excitement as the space shuttle clears the tower (accompanied by actual audio from NASA’s mission control), and begins its ascent toward the heavens. The band creates a thrill rife with possibility until tragedy strikes, and the somber tone returns. The music’s tone is sad enough, but it becomes a real gut punch when accompanied by the sound clips of spectators witnessing the disaster in person.
The second part of “Challenger” mourns the outcome of the first, lamenting not only the loss of the crew, but the loss of what was to be from their adventure. But even within this sober theme lies the possibility of hope for the future. By the time president Ronald Reagan’s speech memorializing the Challenger crew is complete, we recognize that even in the face of great loss, we must keep moving forward. The sacrifice of the Challenger crew, David Shaw, and everyone else recognized on this album must not be in vain.
Departure Songs is a positively incredible album, created by a remarkable band in transition. Even the most callous among us will have trouble not feeling the power of this music. It is one of the most remarkable albums I’ve heard in the last five years. I do not say this lightly. I can only wonder where We Lost the Sea will go from here. Wherever that may be, I’m coming along for the ride.