Written by Kep
Everson Poe – the tower
> Atmospheric doom/sludge
> Illinois, US
> Releasing November 23
> Trepanation Recordings
It’s funny how music can surprise you even when you have a good idea what to expect. I’m no stranger to Everson Poe, the solo project of Chicagoan Mae Shults—though I would by no means say I’m an expert either, as her back catalogue is impressively vast and I haven’t heard all of its 23 releases—but the tower seems to me to be an important landmark in the project’s story. Always emotional, always evocative, the music has morphed and been refashioned in a myriad of ways since 2009’s debut Convergence, but here we find something new yet again, both in form and in function.
the tower is a story. This isn’t the surprise; Shults has frequently made use of narratives in Everson Poe’s more recent material, from the Medusa allegory of servant to the fairy tales of The Night Country. What’s certainly new, though, is the album’s form and how it uses it to tell that story: two enormous, multi-sectioned, agonizingly emotional tracks, 27 and 25 minutes respectively, that stand like twin monoliths of pure expression. The narrative is one of fiction, but anchored deep in miserable reality: it tells of the first woman to be executed by the US government for the crime of being transgender. Each track represents systemic change via the image of The Tower tarot card, with “i. upright” representing progress and “ii. reversed” standing for “the destruction of false foundations”; neither necessarily being positive or negative in nature. It’s abundantly clear that Shults’ storytelling process is breaking new and powerful ground, and that’s before even taking the music itself into account.
Said music hovers between meditative and aggressive, between an anxious calm and a ragged desperation. Bits of somberly beautiful post-metal texture mingle with dark doom tempi and atmospheres, dredged with filthy distorted sludge. There’s a dichotomy to the whole thing that’s most easily observed in the slow, hypnotic rhythms of the guitars and drums juxtaposed against Shults’ (and her guests’) hoarse, painfully broken screams. Some of the passages feel almost primal in their indignant rage, like the blast beat-filled blackened sprint that falls around nine minutes into “i. upright”, the usually-languid sludgy bass rattling and pulsing in wild distress. Other moments, like the opening of “ii. reversed” are more like swimming in a slowly swirling pool of dark murk, brooding harmonies repeating in slow eddies as the vocals emote harshly above. The album oozes and drips with pain and frustration from top to bottom, even when it’s moving slowly, which is most of the time, and undertones (and overtones) of sorrow underpin every moment. Some moments are downright funereal in their weeping melodies: one of the most moving passages lies ~15 minutes into “i. upright”, where a soaring line of tremendous sorrow a la Bell Witch rears its tearful head from the end of a spoken word sample.
These bits of spoken word are as integral to the tower’s plot and form as the music itself. There are several spread across the two tracks, and they help create clear transitions between the large sections of each piece. The samples are pulled mostly from the floors of various American legislative bodies, people using their time to speak in strong terms about the rights of transgender individuals. Some speak with desperate passion against oppression—Loren Perkins’ powerful testimony in the Texas senate from March of this year is the first, and her persistence over the chamber’s attempts to end her time before she is finished make for a rousing and emotional moment—while others spout hate and preach against equal rights out of selfishness. Again, the dichotomy theme of the album is front and center: statements from both sides are here, and the bravery of activists like Perkins and Zooey Zephyr are presented as part of a narrative that includes their opposition. In fact, the sample that precedes that mournful Bell Witchian moment mentioned above is that of a mother, testifying that she would not, in fact, do what her transgender child needed to be happy.
Because of the sectionality of these two enormous tracks, they don’t become a slog. Rather, we move from moment to moment in sync with Shults and her collaborators, hanging on the raw emotion and treading inside the murky darkness, absorbing agonized cries above and thick, distorted bass beneath until space opens before us again for another vignette. It’s a remarkable accomplishment to keep something this lengthy engaging from start to finish; I’m reminded of Eremit, the German doomsludge band, in that the substantial time passing on this album never seems as long as it is. Helping in this regard especially are Shults’ collaborators, particularly the vocalists—db (RRAAO, AISTEACH) and Abe (RRAAO, Apparition Gauntlet), Ria (Karnstein), tb (Suspended in Light)—whose added variety greatly enhances the lengthy runtime, especially in its harrowing final stretch. Also deserving of a shout is avant-garde drone artist (and friend of the site!) Helena Ford, who expertly contributes a terrifying blaring drone that makes “ii. reversed” particularly haunting.
THE BOTTOM LINE
You might expect me to say something like “the tower isn’t an easy listen, but it’s worth it.” That would be true, but it’s also an oversimplification. This effort from Everson Poe feels both fresh and consequential, utterly devastating and yet at times strangely uplifting. Its 52 minutes of achingly raw yet carefully-crafted atmospheric doomsludge will absolutely run your emotions ragged, and it is powerful, powerful stuff. It’s the finest Everson Poe release I’ve heard, and yes, you also need to hear it.