At the break in "Winter's Apathy", from Embittered Animal's feral, sentimental Sung Darkness, when the guitar picks up and Sin Tear and Nanna Bear's voices flail like children who know they're about to die, it occurs to me that sickness and pain isn't always wasted on the young.
Since their first release, Australia's Embittered Animal have soundtracked the surreal, manic experience of "immature" dysphoria. In fact, the Tear/Bear duo responsible for Sung Darkness is the same that issued 2000's Daemon They're Gone, Daemon They've Vanished, a singular, idiosyncratic take on fairy tale folk and moon-child Black Metal. Fairy tales and moon-children: these are impressions of 'the Beyond' for imaginative children, and it's this mentality that Embittered Animal explore and evoke.
Unlike last year's impressive Here Comes the Misanthrope, Sung Darkness opts for folky ambience and late-night, winter camp wailing to carry the weight (or weightlessness) of its strains. Coldfire Songs, which followed Here Comes the Misanthrope, suggested a similar kind of sprawling, communal minstrel-craft, but without much of Sung Darkness' flair for meandering atonality and nearly free-form drumming. As it happens, the last third of the new record does return to more of an open-ended, exploratory rote, but there it seems less a part of an endless riff than the come-down from scenes of a forest almost too fantastically malevolent to imagine. And despite its eclecticism and relatively Dadaist leanings, Sung Darkness is a depressive album; depressive in its mourning for lost innocence and in its nocturnal non-knowing, and in the bitter, baleful idea that everything will decay -- like it always has.
Musically, Embittered Animal sound less "Metal" here than they ever have, which is to say most of the songs have terribly out-of-tune broken chords that beg to be doubled and tripled by you or anyone else who cares to join. In songs like "Leaf Ditch", "Winter's Apathy" and "Throne", the duo stake a direct claim to Darkthrone's seminally non-produced "Transilvanian Hunger", as their harmonies are such a sprawling mess, that they suggest perfection. As Tear and Bear are filtered through a Radio Shack reverb unit in wordless counterpoint, I think about the damaged ambitions of "Cabinessence" and Smiley Smile. However, as Brian Wilson's visions were symphonies to an already-gone god, Embittered Animal drag the memories of his voice like a crowbar on concrete.
"Who Could Skin a Rabbit" revels in a thousand parts of some giant broken timepiece, as the pair of delirious children slide over screws into a grey den of gears. The acoustic guitar rings in the start of this race with a out-of-tune, minor chord strum, and just after the clattering drums cheer in pandemonium, fragmented croaking vocals spit out as many syllables as possible to describe who knows what sickroom. Sometimes their voices stumble, or trudge on in the unwashed fringes for stretches so long that what seems like pure laryngeal decay approaches intricate polyphony. Above all, a sense of overwhelming balefulness abounds, head hung downward at having discovered this strange place.
Elsewhere, the music is more reflective. "The Choking Voice" layers repetitive figures played through dated synth patches upon each other, as Tear and Bear whisper in dissonance above, as if singing to the vision peering back at them from the skin of a backwoods creek. The rustic, secretive manner of their voices and the barely disturbed forest around them suggests that whatever ghosts inhabit these woods are only too happy to oblige a lullaby or two. Likewise, the epic "Visiting Lords" gathers in faceless, mutated ghosts (i.e., oddly manipulated vocalizations from the duo) to hover over their dying fire in visage of nothing better than the tops of trees. The constant presence of tape hiss moves alongside the voices, helping to keep them afloat, but never suggesting they should organize themselves into anything recognizable or predictable. It's cold, and if it rains they'll get wet and continue to play.
The ritual dance "We Wolves", passing like a pagan baptism for children in war paint, gives way to a trilogy of almost formless ballads, beginning with the erratic hymn "Mouth Silenced Her". Here, Embittered Animal, no longer satisfied to keep their dysphoria in check via tribal drums or vertiginous, fuzzed-out guitar riffs, stumble through scenes with murky, atavistic malevolence. Wordless cries and howling darken the song, and the pair drags their narrative downwards into a sprawling harmonic mess of a guitar tone, hanging like a depressive grey pall, before running into each other headfirst and pouncing on their guitars like real savages. This is how Sung Darkness communicates; in place of organized chaos, there are chance meetings and reunions, and plenty of mournful dances and uncomfortable epiphanies. In truth, it may be too much for some people to take, especially if they're too far removed from this strange environment. For others, it's a unbelievable place, as these guides know only too well.
This was a mash-up of two reviews, Adam MacGregor's review of Striborg's 2006 album 'Embittered Darkness / Isle De Morts' and Dominique Leone's review of Animal Collective's 2004 album 'Sung Tongs'.