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Spiral - The Death Of Billy Jensen CD (album) cover

THE DEATH OF BILLY JENSEN

Spiral

 

Psychedelic/Space Rock

2.69 | 5 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

VanVanVan
Prog Reviewer
2 stars Let it never be said that Spiral lacks ambition or imagination. This debut album mixes influences from post-rock, ambient music and even noise to tell a fascinating, dark story about reincarnation, murder and rebirth.

Unfortunately, just as the proverbial man's reach exceeds its grasp, so too does The Death of Billy Jensen's ambition exceed its musical execution. Though the band's aspirations to genre mixing are admirable, the music is often lackluster and in too many cases is even subpar. Add to this the fact that the production often leaves the instrumental tones sounding like they came from a cheap synthesizer, and you're left with an album that has a lot of good ideas and an unfortunately small amount of success to show for it.

"Jensen's Theme 1" is a very atmospheric piece, with swirling, airy drones making up the majority of the sound. There's a very simple melody that's repeated over and over as well (the titular theme, perhaps), but it's used very sparingly and this first installment of "Jensen's Theme" is essentially just an intro to "Dirt," which follows much in the same vein. Almost a dark ambient piece, "Dirt" is composed primarily of low, crackling sound effects, some minimalistic chanting sounds and some distorted spoken word lyrics. I'm certainly not averse to minimalistic music as a general rule, but in my opinion "Dirt" goes on for far too long given the amount of ideas that are actually present in the track. It's a shame, too, because there's a stellar build in intensity towards the end which is marred by the fact that so much of the rest of the track hasn't had much going on (even by the standards of minimalistic music).

"Jensen's Last Words" takes a bit more of a structured approach, with defined guitar riffs and coherent vocals. Unfortunately, it's here that another of the album's major flaws reveals itself: the guitars on this album sound to me like they were produced in Garageband. The tone is flat and mechanical and there's not really any depth to the sound. I normally don't comment on production in reviews because I think good music can usually speak for itself, but here I dislike the tone so much that it actually does detract from the listening experience for me. The distortion on the vocals as well leaves me cold; it just makes them sound very one dimensional. That may have been intentional, I don't know, but it's not to my taste.

"Jensen's Theme 2" unsurprisingly reprises "Jensen's Theme 1," and unfortunately I don't think this track really improves on the problems that have plagued the last two. The instrumental sounds are still mechanical and one dimensional and the single, slow, repeated melody does not, in my opinion, add much to the pacing of the album as a whole. The sudden cutoff doesn't help its problems with cohesion, either.

Thankfully, "Jensen's Little Sister" is a little better. Though I still have some issues with the instrumental tones used, this track manages to get past them by not leaning on the instrumentals to do too much of the heavy lifting on the track. Rather, hauntingly distorted vocals take center stage for the first half of the track, with only minimal backing from the instruments. This section of the track works very well because of its simplicity: the textures, while not my cup of tea, mix very well and the overall effect is interesting. Unfortunately, the second half of the track reintroduces the guitar tone that I find so distasteful and lets it riff at the forefront of the track for a good 3 minutes, something which hampers the effectiveness of the beginning of the track.

"Jensen's Little Sister 2" is, in my opinion, probably the most successful track on the album up until this point. The textures sound far more natural and the atmospheric melodies of the instruments match the haunting vocals as well as they possibly could. Even when the track moves away from minimalism into a more orchestrated section it doesn't fall prey to the same problems that the first installment of the track did. Textures are used far more understatedly then was the intrusive guitar on part 1, and it never feels like the execution of the music is exceeding the ideas behind it.

"Child of the Earth," despite a promising barrage of noise that begins the track, ends up being, in my opinion, probably the weakest track on the album. Essentially just a long reprise of "Jensen's Theme" with vocals over it, the track epitomizes almost every flaw that has appeared on other parts of the album: the unfortunate guitar sound dominates the track, and it does so while essentially playing the same melody for four straight minutes with only minor periods of variation. The distortion on the vocals leaves them sounding, more often then not, out of tune. The one bright spot is the lyrics, which are excellent and very interesting (as they have been throughout the album); however, the way they are presented leaves a lot to be desired, in my humble opinion.

"Cripple," on the other hand, works pretty well, returning to the motif of minimalistic/ambient music behind spoken word narration. As the album's concept is one of its strongest attributes, this narration works very well, making the album seem far more cohesive than it actually has been up until this point. The backing music is excellent as well, understated and non-obtrusive, enhancing the lyrics and not trying to override them. Some traces of distortion in the background ambience show that, for whatever complaints I have about Spiral's use of textures, they undoubtedly have a good ear for sonic construction.

"Jensen's Theme 3" is another simple reprise of the first two "Jensen's Themes" and there's not much to say about this one that I haven't already said about the first two sections, though there is some interesting variation between instruments that makes this probably the strongest installment of the three.

As the album's titular event occurs in "Jensen's Death," the music takes on a gravity that has been lacking up until this point. While the guitar tone continues to bother me quite a bit, the rest of the music is quite good, with an insistent and interesting drum part and probably the strongest vocal section on the album. Here the vocal distortion is used to give the singing an incredibly raw sound, and as a result the vocals come off as genuinely vitriolic and passionate rather than flat. The newfound somberness of the music matches this quite well, and as a result "Jensen's Death" ends up being a fairly strong track.

"Mother" concludes the album on a fairly good note, with deceptively happy keyboards playing a repeating pattern under some faint vocals that come off as nothing so much as broken. The singing is really the highlight of the track, ranging from the aforementioned tone of quiet despair to some quite powerful wails. The keyboards serve quite well in their role as backing instruments as well, with the accursed guitar only appearing briefly.

Overall, I'll say this for the album as a whole: there are a lot of very cool ideas. Many of the vocal sections are haunting, dramatic and even downright scary, and the fact that the group was able to pull that off without coming off as corny is impressive. Similarly, there's a lot of very nice ambient and drone music scattered throughout the album, and most of it highlights excellent instincts on the band's part. Unfortunately, for every minute of truly inspired, interesting music, it seems like there's about 3 minutes of bland or even downright unpleasant parts. I really can't stress how much I dislike the guitar tone; again, I'm usually pretty tolerant but it very nearly ruins the album for me entirely (and that's not an exaggeration). Similarly, for every moment the vocals seems tense and atmospheric, it seems there's a moment of atonal wailing into a poor-quality microphone. Again, that's not a problem in and of itself (atonal wailing can be cool) but, in my opinion at least, it's not pulled off well here. Unfortunately, it all culminates in an album that I have a very hard time getting through without pressing the "skip" button.

1.5/5, rounded up

VanVanVan | 2/5 |

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