Atmosphere is imperative in the presentation of most, if not all music, but when it becomes the primary focus, it can become more difficult to create something truly compelling. It’s why so much post-rock feels like an acquired taste, relying on a sense of scope and breathing, natural tableaux above definitive instrumental passages in a way that can be difficult to get to grips with, simply because it’s so divorced from what’s often considered the basic framework of music. That’s not to say that it can’t be good because it certainly can, but it can often feel like there’s no middle ground between it being a deep, enlightening experience and simply background music. And with Wilderness Hymnal, the atmospheric post-rock and doom project of British-Venezuelan singer and pianist Javier Wallis, that can be a particularly pertinent hurdle to get over with Anthropocene, an album not only designed around creating the intense sonic swathes that can make these genres so impenetrable, but also to serve as commentary for the degradation of the planet throughout the current epoch due to human impact.
It all sounds incredibly ambitious, and if there’s one thing to give Wilderness Hymnal for right off the bat, it’s that. There’s vision here that’s been utilised in a way that not a lot of other post-rock acts look at, grounding the sparse, bleak arrangements in something more tangible that, while at some distance a lot of the time, has the shifting, unsettled core that finds Anthropocene’s own abyss getting deeper and deeper. There’s a bleakness that, for the most part, feels justified, like in the militant percussion and hollow pianos of Altar (Wilderness) or the barren arrangements of Ascención, both paired with Wallis’ haunted, sonorous vocals for an even greater sense of darkness and abstract dread. Clearly Wilderness Hymnal know how to work with the basics of atmosphere and fashion their sound around it in a way to show off the intricacy and depth of the arrangements, as well as the open-ended sonic landscape that each one conveys.
But that subsequently begs the question of whether Anthropocene is anything more than just another widescreen, atmospheric album with little done to push it towards a great album in its own right, and the unfortunate fact is that it really isn’t. As much as the cold piano stabs might have some form of vampiric opulence, that’s about as far as engaging as this really gets, and it’s easier to see how the compositional strengths of Wilderness Hymnal’s work surpass those of an actual album. There’s a certain primal interest that comes from the curdled pianos of Bone Script or the scratchy guitars and gothic chants of Caldera, but their purpose ultimately feels to fit in rather than provide any standout moments. There’s a sense that Wilderness Hymnal want that sense of enormity that so much post-rock has, and like so many others in the same boat, they’ve sacrificed what could make this an interesting album in its own right. The constantly slow, methodical nature only highlights how little in the way of instrumental progression there is and how heavy drones form the basis of this entire album’s sound, something also put forward by Wallis’ vocals that never shift or evolve beyond a ringing baritone that might initially be impressive, but loses a lot of that weight when it’s the only thing here. It’s not the worst thing ever and can make for an interesting listen in small doses, but nine tracks of heavy, unshifting bleakness – most of which run fairly long at that – becomes too much to handle rather quickly.
It’s definitely evident of the seed of a good idea that Wilderness Hymnal have, but bulking it out into a drawn-out, droning mass doesn’t make the most of what it has to offer. If anything, it only shows just how prevalent the cracks and limitations are, building an album out of one idea with remarkably little breathing room to do anything worthy with it. Even then, it’s easy to see how Anthropocene could’ve worked with some investment in modulation or different tones, but as it stands, the final product is disappointingly one-note and unresponsive, showing flashes of promise at times but choosing to beef them out rather than build upon them in any meaningful way. But even those flashes are easy to lose in an album like this, and it’s difficult to see how much staying power Anthropocene will have because of it.
For fans of: Esben And The Witch, Chelsea Wolfe, Anna von Hausswolff
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Anthropocene’ by Wilderness Hymnal is out now on Kobalt Music Group.
I never said thank you at the time, which was incredibly remiss of me – so thank you Luke for the time you gave this record and the thoughtful examination of its strengths and weaknesses. Great food for thought as I develop new work.