Might the time finally be right for Mouth of the Architect? For a decade, the Ohio band has largely been ghettoized to cult status, familiar to Midwestern kids or those paying more than casual attention to what's clumsily called "post-metal," at least post-Isis. Between 2004 and 2008, Mouth of the Architect released three rather convincing-- if sometimes haphazardly indulgent-- records of unified doom and grace. Dependent upon extreme dynamics and grand composition, with track lengths that ticked into the teens and albums that stretched past the hour mark, Mouth of the Architect seemed like a natural recipient of the same "brainy metal" laurels then distributed by outlets as illustrious as The New York Times.
But the ascendance never came, and since 2008's teetering Quietly, the band instead lingered at the threshold of self-destruction. They released an EP in 2010, but, as a revealing Invisible Oranges look into the band's last half-decade suggests, they mostly tried not to die-- as a group, really, or as people. "Some of us were convinced that the end was coming, either the big picture or individually," drummer Dave Mann told Brad Sanders. "Some of us, me in particular, were in a downward spiral in a lot of ways."
The appropriately titled new album Dawning is their first in five years and their first featuring bassist Evan Danielson. It's also their best work to date, a fully realized resurrection. Dawning showcases a band that now moves with an intricacy and immediacy that indicate just what Mouth of the Architect is: a veteran group comprising members with long rÉsumÉs, who've now gotten a chance to begin again and know what to do with it. A wonder of tension and release, Dawning is designed to throw listeners into tailspins and, then, to lift them above the mess. That drama not only reflects the survival of the band that stuck around long enough to make this album but also of a group that's now pushed past the cloister of post-metal: Despite the hardened visage of tough-guy screams, burly guitar tones, and Mann's aggressive drumming, Dawning is a compulsively likable record, full of anthems meant for memorizing and environments meant for immersion. (Hell, "Sharpen Your Axes" could pass for millennial Incubus.) If you've ever liked Isis there's plenty for you here; on the other hand, if you like, say, Abbey Road-- or any music that tries to outstrip the structure of a single song while not abandoning its magnetism-- Dawning deserves your time, too.
Should the metal prefixes "progressive" or even "post-" suggest long-winded, self-invested excursions nestled within songs that require an almanac, scrap the notion for Dawning. Yes, these songs stretch between seven and 11 minutes each, but even the longest, centerpiece "How This Will End, hinges upon narrative thrust and musical selflessness. If there are any guitar solos here at all, they come toward the start and the finish of "How This Will End, when a neon electric tone arches over a mounting cavalcade of drums and bass. Rather than serve as breaks in the momentum, though, both passages lead tremendous swells that rise to meet the troika of vocalists in another instance of triumph. Not one moment among these 11 minutes seems squandered or lost, as the quintet keeps rising and falling, churning and rebuilding.
Opener "Lullabye" establishes that principle from the jump, or as soon as traipsing acoustic guitar and twinkling piano concede to a heroic riff wrapped within three-part, gang-style harmonies. Mouth of the Architect move constantly between parts; at various points, they leap from near-silence to a quake viscous enough to make plenty of stoner metal sound thin, from guitar leads that suggest Chicago blues moan to math-rock redirection. Behind the kit, Mann serves as the expert rudder, keeping the songs steady even as he navigates the transfers. This constant swivel also depends upon the split vocal duties of Steve Brooks, Kevin Schindel, and Jason Watkins. They trade verses, flip-flopping between pristine radio rock leads and malevolent growls, sometimes only for a line at the time. They often share choruses, delivering them the sort of group-vocal abandon that hints at a darkened Danielson Family. Their singing-- here, more charged and urgent than it's ever been-- gives all of the band's moving pieces a through-line from one side to the other.
Talk of the tide of intelligent or somehow otherwise-elevated heavy music hasn't faded during Mouth of the Architect's temporary absence. Though both Sunn O))) and the late Isis have only released one album since MotA's last one, the acceptance of and debate over nominally black metal acts such as Liturgy, Wolves in the Throne Room, Krallice and Deafheaven has kept that conversation current. Mouth of the Architect only nods to that au courant talking point during Dawning, most notably with the blizzard of tremolo guitars that open "It Swarms" and the clattering way the band emerges from an instrumental break during "Sharpen Your Axes". But at the very least, Dawning deserves mention alongside Deafheaven's Sunbather, a record that's most notable for its holistic approach to drama and romance and the complete cinema of itself. Mouth of the Architect has long written from a vantage of imminent apocalypse, a perspective Dawning does not forego. There's talk of collapsing systems and prevailing darkness, spent luck and idolized disrepair. But at record's end, when Mouth of the Architect's three singers trade and share lines about risking it all even if they come up short, it's hard not to hear a core of redemption and potential hope within the music itself. And after returning from the brink to make one of the year's most rapturous records, metal or post-metal or whatever, there had better be.
- Grayson Currin (Pitchfork)
2. It Swarms
3. Sharpen Your Eyes
4. How Will This End
6. The Other Son