A CirdecSongs Perfect Album: Departure Songs

WE LOST THE SEA, Departure Songs (Translation Loss, 2015)

PERSONNEL: Mark Owen (guitars); Matt Harvey (guitars); Brendan Warner (guitars); Kieran Elliott (bass); Mathew Kelly (piano, keyboards); Nathaniel D’Ugo (drums)

TRACK LISTING:

  1. A Gallant Gentleman
  2. Bogatyri
  3. The Last Dive of David Shaw
  4. Challenger, Part 1: Flight
  5. Challenger, Part 2: A Swan Song

 

I wasn’t looking for We Lost the Sea. But I am forever grateful that I found them. My search for something new in post-rock led me to an album I consider one of the most heartfelt and emotional albums I will ever experience. I have no doubt other listeners will experience the same thing.

Once they get through the pain.

Departure Songs (released in 2015) is more than an album. It is a collection of five epic soundtracks (the last song is in two parts) in search of five short films. The unifying theme throughout the album is loss, something the Sydney, Australia band experienced firsthand. And while the band has since updated its Bandcamp page to describe the album as being “inspired by failed, yet epic and honorable journeys or events throughout history where people have done extraordinary things for the greater good of those around them,” there can be no ignoring what got them to this point to begin with.

Formed in 2007, We Lost the Sea began its musical life in the heaviest (perhaps Doom-iest, if I may be allowed my own term) possible way, chugging out atmospheric metal that normally would not catch my complete attention. The band was fronted by a young vocalist named Chris Torpy.  They released two albums (Crimea and The Quietest Place on Earth), achieving critical acclaim and began building a loyal local fan base by 2012.

Tragically, Torpy committed suicide in March of ’13. We Lost the Sea took a year away before resurfacing just over a year later to play a benefit show to raise awareness for suicide prevention. Then the band stepped out of the spotlight yet again, presumably to determine its next course of action.

Rather than hire a new singer, the sextet decided to carry on as an instrumental act. The result of this action was Departure Songs, an album dedicated by the band to Torpy’s memory. The album presents itself with the feel of a musical audio book, with each chapter telling a tale of gallantry and loss. I would argue that this album is much more than a collection of new music. It is an audio therapy session. It is the sound of a band attempting to accept, cope with, and purge itself of a deep personal loss, coming out with a sense of clarity and renewed purpose on the other side. What may seem like a depressing way to make music is actually quite cathartic.

There is nothing overtly complex about this band’s music. And therein lies its beauty. Rather than overwhelm the listener with every note it can play, Departure Songs is an album of layers, created to appear much like an onion from the inside out. Rather than peel away musical layers, the band adds them to each song, which almost always starts from the sparsest beginnings. Before the listener is aware, he is being transported on the most emotional of journeys, each with its own mind-shattering climax.

The album’s opener, “A Gallant Gentleman,” is a prime example. It builds from the simplest two-note guitar riff (a double-stop, musicians call it), played with a delay pedal and drenched in reverb. That player is joined by a second guitar and piano, leading to the insertion of a choir, followed by the bass and drums. What starts out like an ambient soundtrack builds its way slowly to a brief outburst of metal before fading back into the distance from which it came.

The song itself is the story of a failed Antarctic expedition in 1911-12. While making its way back to base camp, one of the members of the British party fell down an icy crevice to his death. Most were suffering from frostbite, worst of all Captain Lawrence Oates, whose condition worsened to gangrene. The party was battling blizzard conditions with few provisions, and Oates knew he was slowing them down. Still, they refused the captain’s orders to leave him behind. One night, after they made camp, Captain Oates got up without his boots and informed the rest of his party that he was going outside, telling them he might be gone for awhile. In the hope his actions might save the rest, Captain Oates faced certain death and walked out into the night, never to be seen again.

That expedition and sacrifice can be heard playing itself out this track. All one has to do is close his eyes, and “see” the action.

“Bogatyri” is the album’s second track, and my personal favorite. It is the song I found by accident. The song centers around the legend of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, and the three volunteers who helped prevent a global catastrophe by going into highly radioactive water and manually opening a release valve that would prevent steam being created inside a chamber from triggering a massive explosion, causing huge portions of Europe to be contaminated by radioactive gas and other materials. It was assumed that anyone taking on this job faced a certain and most painful death. But the mission was accomplished, and it was believed that the “Suicide Squad,” as they came to be known, died less than two weeks later, each buried in a lead-lined coffin.

I call this story a legend because the tale of the volunteers was ultimately proven to be apocryphal, which the band learned and owned up to. But that doesn’t make the song any less powerful, and I can still see these men taking this courageous and deadly journey in my mind as the composition plays out. It starts out with a relatively simple guitar riff, not unlike anything I’ve heard from my favorite post-rock band, Tortoise. But as the piece goes forward, it gets progressively heavier.

I distinctly remember sitting at my kitchen table, typing a chapter for my book, while the song built. I nodded my head gently with enjoyment as the bass and drums kicked in. But then I began to feel what was being played. As the song got heavier, I stopped typing. I was transfixed by what was coming through my headphones. The song’s climax is the heaviest of metal. But unlike other hard rock songs I have enjoyed, this song’s apex actually moved me to tears. I thought I was crazy until I played it for a couple of musician friends who had the exact same reaction. One of them sent me a message with a crying emoji, followed by the words, “Oh … WOW!” That said it all, because I had given no information about the song, outside of expressing my enjoyment.

“The Last Dive of David Shaw” is completely true, telling the story of the world-renowned diver, one of only ten ever to reach 250 meters under water. As the liner notes put into perspective, more men (12) have walked on the moon. In the midst of a freshwater cave dive in South Africa, Shaw encountered the body of Deon Drever, who had been lost 10 years before. Shaw decided to abandon his dive and change his objective: bring Drever’s body home to his family.

With numerous fellow divers and members of the press present, Shaw dove back into the depths to attempt his rescue. After reaching Drever’s body, Shaw somehow got tangled up in his own dive lines. His attempt to bring the body back to the surface turned fatal, as Shaw struggled, and was unable to conquer the elements before his own body gave out. Four days later, while trying to salvage equipment, the remaining crew members unexpectedly pulled Shaw’s body to the surface. Attached to him was the body of Drever. Shaw’s mission had, in fact, been accomplished.

The audio from that dive opens this particular song, right up to its ultimate failure. I was able to verify this by simply going to YouTube, where I was able to see David Shaw’s last dive myself.

The song builds itself in segments, each representing a portion of the dive. One can feel Shaw’s renewed sense of purpose, the determination of the dive, the tragedy of locating the body, the attempt at recovery, the struggle, and ultimately the bleakness of failure. It is brilliantly executed musically, even if it may not necessarily be for the faint of heart.

The two-part “Challenger” chronicles, in its own way, the mystery of space travel and its possible scientific uses, along with the all-too-brief journey of Space Shuttle STS-51, which exploded just over a minute after launch on January 28, 1986. All seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe (who was to be the first schoolteacher in space), died. As a devout fan of NASA and the space program, I felt this loss the most.

Once again, the band uses sound clips from that tragic day. But in this case, they use audio taken from the audience who came to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch. We feel their nervousness prior to liftoff, their exhilaration upon launch, and their confusion and horror when they realize something has gone terribly wrong, confirmed by the voice broadcasting from Mission Control in Houston, which they can hear.

The music covers all of these moment’s remarkably, starting slowly and softly (as always), and building to that horrible, fateful moment. It takes much longer than Challenger’s 73 second flight, making the music’s impact all the more powerful. From there, things open up musically in such a way that we can almost see the flag-draped coffins. I almost always find myself saluting. But unlike the other songs on Departure Songs, “Challenger” rebuilds with a new sense of purpose, as We Lost the Sea plays with a sense of hope and optimism not previously heard on this record. All is not lost. We can and will carry on.

The point is driven home by snippets of a speech given by then-President Ronald Reagan, who honored the Challenger astronauts by reminding the rest of us that our adventure in space was only beginning, tragedy happens, and the program would continue to go forward. No doubt these six Australians were feeling something similar, having weathered the loss of their friend and bandmate. They, too, are in the early stages of a great musical adventure. They, too, are continuing forward.

I have met many people who cannot fathom the idea of rock music being moving without lyrics. I challenge them, one and all, to listen to this album and then tell me otherwise. Departure Songs has gotten me through some stuff in the four years I have been wearing the figurative grooves off of it. It has never gotten old or tiresome, and it is all but impossible to play only one song when the CD comes off the shelf. We Lost the Sea is releasing a new album this fall. The track they released is every bit as epic. Nevertheless, I feel for this band, because they are attempting to follow up a perfect album.

#cirdecsongs

Departure Songs

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