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Reviews: Atoms and Void's And Nothing Else

Atoms and Void's And Nothing Else

My most anticipated album for ten years running has arrived.

I first heard demos for Atoms and Void’s And Nothing Else sometime in 2005, back when the group was called Ghost Wars and debuting new material on MySpace was normal. To say the project intrigued me is a vast understatement: this collaboration between former Juno singer/guitarist Arlie Carstens and longtime Damien Jurado cohort Eric Fisher faced the immense task of following up my favorite album, Juno’s 2001 opus A Future Lived in Past Tense (which may get an overdue vinyl reissue in the near future). Those initial demos offered a range of possibilities: the IV-drip blues duet “Destroyed, The Sword of Saint Michael,” the alternately plaintive and thunderous post-rock of “Waves of Blood,” and the gentle humanism of the half-instrumental “Lay Down Your Weapons.” Less Dischord and DeSoto, more Kranky and Temporary Residence Limited. The distance from Juno’s dynamic post-punk was evident in these recordings, but even greater in the process, which abandoned Juno’s five-member line-up in favor of a long list of guest musicians steered by Carstens and Fisher, inspired by the legendary sessions for Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. No, this record would not be a simple sequel to the life-affirming expanse of A Future Lived in Past Tense, but its potential as a spiritual heir was evident from that handful of songs.

No one could have predicted that this potential would take a decade to realize. Dual catastrophes derailed completion of the demos: Eric Fisher’s laptop was stolen in 2006 and the back-up hard drive storing the ProTools sessions was corrupted, leaving the group with only .mp3 mix-downs of the sessions. Repeating the recording process was not an option: reassembling the geographically scattered array of guest musicians would have been a logistical impossibility. Years passed while Carstens and Fisher wrangled with data-recovery services in ultimately futile attempts to reconstruct session architecture. Enthusiasm for the material remained, but momentum was constantly undercut by all-too-familiar varieties of major life events: family illnesses, friends passing away, exhausting new jobs, constant travel. Every few years I’d hear a tantalizing new demo or receive an encouraging progress report, reinforcing my belief that at some point, the album would come out, but seemingly every hurdle was thrown at Carstens and Fisher, even the theft of the group’s original name by a litigious electronic artist.

Despite fate’s cruel, repeated intervention, And Nothing Else finally exists, released digitally in September (on my birthday, no less). Even “The Architect and the Atomizer” offers a red herring of hair-raising guitar rock. After a moody rise and fall laced with strings and piano, Carstens’s checked delivery ignites into a final-minute fire-and-brimstone sermon. Lyrics like “Three years of reprieve / Does not erase a lifetime of grief / Living on your knees / When the water closes there’s nothing left to see / There’ll be no legacy” recall the get-your-shit-together ferocity of “The French Letter” and “You Are the Beautiful Conductor of this Orchestra,” but it’s the only time Carstens assumes that voice on And Nothing Else.

“Lay Down Your Weapons” hits the reset button on listener expectations for the rest of the album, both sonically and lyrically. It resides in the Talk Talk / Bark Psychosis school of post-rock, with carefully arranged piano, an expressive bass line, and subtle electronic surges supplanting distorted guitars in the instrumental palette. It, too, has a Juno throwback, with its opening lines (“Your son / Wanted to talk a nap / So we closed his casket / And tried not to look back”) echoing similar tragedy in “When I Was In ____” (“Your son’s hands stayed warm / Long after he died”). Its previously instrumental second half now completes that sentiment, with multi-tracked vocals urging to “Lay down your weapons / And lay this love to rest / The wanting, the waiting / Will not take you there.” Whereas A Future Lived in Past Tense called for action, “Lay Down Your Weapons” fittingly recognizes that some circumstances are outside of our control, and no amount of struggling or reaching will bring proper closure.

What’s left, then, is mostly quiet contemplation. The lilting “Feathers From a Bird” floats on piano and clarinet, and its brand of ambient classical fits nicely into a growing prominence of that style. “Waves of Blood” continues the instrumental trend but increases the volume with its merger of Mogwai guitars and the double-drummer approach of Fugazi’s The Argument, manned here by Eric Akre of Treepeople/Built to Spill/Juno and J. Clark of Pretty Girls Make Graves. The crashes help raise the album’s heart rate, but the pairing of melancholy guitar and Rhodes melodies highlights the song. “For Sharon, With Love” is the first of the album’s piano ballads, an elegy (“We tried to walk in the light / But we died in the dark”) whose loneliness is embodied in the noticeable action from the keys. Given its somber surroundings, the brightness of “Golden Shivers,” a pulsing Phillip Glass / Steve Reich homage, is quite welcome. “Destroyed” adds a few overdubs to its demo version, but its skeletal feel remains, leaving nothing in the way of its haunting, mythic rumination on guilt. (Trivia: The closest Atoms and Void came to a live performance was Carstens singing a few bars of “Destroyed” during the soundcheck for Juno’s 2006 reunion shows in Seattle.)

The album’s centerpiece is “Virginia Long Exhale,” a song unveiled in 2005 and updated with a near-finished version two years later. It starts out simply enough—“We go down / To the lake”—and dodges instrumental tension with its careful blend of clarinet, bass clarinet, saxophone, Rhodes, and both acoustic and electric guitars. (Drums occasionally appear, but if quizzed on their presence, I would have likely answered incorrectly.) But Carstens breathes devastating emotion in both hushed baritone and expressive falsetto into the song’s water imagery, rotating through a number of possible connotations—childhood games, baptism, suicide—before settling on the image of a body slowly passing away. In the midst of paralyzing grief, we rely on ritual (“This is what we do / When we know / Not what / To do”) to guide loved ones and eventually ourselves to the end. “Virginia Long Exhale” is supremely sad, supremely beautiful.

Whereas “Virginia Long Exhale” lingers in funereal repose, Eric Fisher’s “The Earth Countered” follows with a nervous energy. Layers of wordless humming, flickering acoustic strums, and distant drumming support Fisher’s lone lead vocal turn on And Nothing Else, but the most unsettling element of the song is the eerie calm with which he delivers “You won’t feel a thing.” After single-minute “Lowercase Blues” clears the decks, Carstens’ atmospheric piano ballad “The Conductor” has room to resonate. It’s not as focused lyrically as “Weapons” or “Virginia,” but there’s luxuriant depth to the arrangement, with woodwinds, Jenna Conrad's backing vocals, and echoing guitar softening each piano chord.

And Nothing Else closes with “This Departing Landscape,” which initially continues the trend of near-whispered Arlie Carstens piano ballads. Its scant few lines—“Things go wrong / The light will fade / The dawn will come / And this too shall fade away / But oh, oh, oh / I wish you could have stayed”—encapsulate the album’s themes of loss, renewal, and regret, but the gradual, determined swell of bob-and-weave guitar patterns and ringing piano chords offers a sense of closure and optimism that didn’t seem possible back on “The Architect and the Atomizer.” And Nothing Else is a heavy, often tragic record, but thanks to “This Departing Landscape,” I don’t leave it dwelling on tragedy or guilt, but rather with the feeling that those weights have been lifted.

And Nothing Else is a deeply personal record, both for Atoms and Void and my own listening history, but its translation of specific experiences into emotional connections is exemplary. “This Departing Landscape” generalizes those experiences into “things,” and given the long-term perspective of the album’s decade in development, I transpose write my own narrative from that era into the album. My father succumbing to cancer, my grandmother passing away at 100, my daughter being born. There’s no answer to the easiest question about And Nothing Else—“Was it worth the wait?”—because its excellence is fused to those events in my memory. Yet few albums can carry such a load (Juno’s A Future Lived in Past Tense foremost among them), a point that’s been underlined hundreds of times in the last decade with each album that didn’t measure up to the hypothetical Atoms and Void album I would one day hear, to the tangible Atoms and Void album that now exists. Perhaps one day there will be another Atoms and Void album (there is more material, like the cut-loose rocker “The Elephant in Your Womb”), a vastly different record that would speak to vastly different experiences, but I’ll apply the patience learned since the initial Ghost Wars demos to any potential timetable.