Music Reviews
The Calm Before

Matt Elliott The Calm Before

(Ici d'ailleurs) Rating - 7/10

The blustery, enveloping sonic landscapes of avant-folk musician Matt Elliott (and his alter ego/drum 'n' bass project Third Eye Foundation) candidly ask whether misery truly loves company.  For two decades, the native Englishman has tapped directly into a subconscious reservoir of creativity, exploring an invariably personal, seemingly impenetrable niche that so affectingly exposes his depressive disposition and pessimistic worldview.  Translating humanity's darkest impulses into anthemic epics, Elliott's sonorous baritone voice and six-string finger-picking virtuosity ache with loneliness and regret, contributing to the sensation of being actively haunted from angels- and devils-on-the-shoulder simultaneously.  In many of his ambitious compositions featuring a mélange of minor chord progressions and subtly beautiful chamber ornamentation, it's as if Elliott is creating a new form of classical music, the only way he knows it, by borrowing from the Spanish flamenco tradition and fusing it with the idioms of Eastern European folk, dark cabaret, sadcore, and ambient soundscapes of his beloved Coil.

Despite being at the tail-end of a 'Songs' trilogy, Elliott's masterful breakthrough, Howling Songs (2008) and its opening eleven-and-a-half-minute The Kübler-Ross Model (the five stages of grief), established a template for his artistic development in the ensuing decade.  Smoky reverberations of studio production were replaced by a more harrowing, eloquent, and noisier "live" sound overall that showcased his skillful guitar-playing.  However, Elliott has always clung to vocal overdubbing/looping and an affinity for soundtrack music in terms of thematic composition, utilizing variations of a melody throughout the course of a single album.  As best evidenced on the flow of Failing Songs (2006), the colorful, repetitious instrumentation is surprisingly quite evocative of Nino Rota's scores for Fellini's well-known features; it has consistently elevated the minstrel of doom and gloom's subject matter to new levels of accessibility.  With specific regard to its arrangements, The Calm Before is not really trying anything new, additionally mimicking the production style he's fallen into for the last eight years.  However, tonally and lyrically, significant glimmers of hope peek through the portentous clouds of reality.

In fact, on Only Myocardial Infarction Can Break Your Heart (2013), Elliott sporadically stumbles through his diffidence to reach certain peaks of forgiveness on another sprawling introduction, the seventeen-minute The Right to Cry:  "People are people / They are who they are."  And, lyrically speaking, he adopts a comparable mindset at A Beginning with a lullaby-like segue into the fourteen-minute title track, The Calm Before, which acknowledges duality, the coexistence of chaos amidst control in this ode to life's spectrum of emotion.  "Just as everything was falling into place / Here's a storm / Don't we need it?"  It would be erroneous to claim this sentimentality always prevails on the record's psychological sway.  But rather than perpetually focusing inwardly on hardship, which may have been the case on the obviously broken-hearted The Broken Man (2011), an all-embracing epiphany of immorality illuminates the unavoidable contradictions of life, love, faith, and beyond.  The Calm Before meticulously merges these themes into the alternately earthy and atmospheric imagery with field-recorded wind cues on the opening tracks for dramatic effect.

Compositionally, The Calm Before, as well as its counterpoint/reprise in the final piece, The Allegory of the Cave, are built rigidly upon the back of one man's acoustic guitar but embellished by a quintet of chamber musicians, most prominently Jeff Hallam's bowed, yearning contrabass and David Chalmin's lilting piano.  The percussive side of piano accompaniment dominates this title track, as the instrument becomes rhythmically locked in step in a protracted dance with the picking of the guitar strings, representing the entanglement and swelling resonance of optimism and pessimism.  The most vocally driven and inflammatory ballad follows; The Feast of St. Stephen, a reference to the Christian martyr and day after the December holiday, comments on the figurative implications of The Calm Before's expression (that omits "the storm," a thinly veiled substitute for religion here).  With some initial wry humor in vocal delivery that mocks the mumbling of prayers, Elliott's tune plays out as a diaristic reflection on one's childhood and the greater tragedy that has befallen the supposed purity of the church due to sexual deviance and methods of indoctrination.

I Only Wanted to Give You Everything continues the intensely personal theme but retreats further into the interior world of unrequited love.  In its melody and titular construction, the song precisely feels like a second movement or chapter to the intimate wordlessness of I Would Have Woken You with This Song from his 2013 effort, an utterly serene and hypnotic ebb and flow of orchestration.  Now defeated, Elliott's guitar weeps for a minute and a half before he speaks up to chant "But you don't love me..." forevermore.  The progressively layered, crescendoing vocals reinforce the same conscious principle of sound provided by the guitar and piano on the title track- that one's inner voices are bearing the weight of the universe.  Aided by Raphaël Séguinier's snappy drumming, it morphs into a cathartic shuffle for those suffering from heartache and melancholia, which feeds into the immediacy of the Greek mythological-leaning Wings and Crown.  Max Tisserand's mellifluous bass clarinet timbres lure one into this penultimate track's great dynamic range and noisy tremolos before the more restrained existentialism of the finale.  The Plato-inspired Allegory, within the literal and metaphorical cave of reference, is echoed by the resounding recording effect.  Gradually, instrumentation bleeds away to accentuate the lovely interplay of Chaton's soft viola harmonics and Elliott's sharply plucked strings; here and throughout, a rich polarity sustains the lyrically lone man's musical collaboration.