Esmerine: Mechanics of Dominion

With so many instrumental ensembles currently operating, each one is challenged to find a way to distinguish itself from the competition. Esmerine, co-founded by one-time Silver Mt. Zion member Rebecca Foon (aka Saltland) and Godspeed You! Black Emperor alumnus Bruce Cawdron, does so by inhabiting a space midway between Balmorhea and Godspeed, with refined chamber music stylings on the one hand and raw, elemental drive on the other. In keeping with the personnel involved, Esmerine's sound is heavily oriented around cello and percussion, Foon handling the former and Cawdron the latter. Supplementing their contributions on Mechanics of Dominion, the group's fourth album on Constellation (and sixth overall) are fellow band-members Jamie Thompson (drums), Jérémi Roy (bass, contrabass), and multi-instrumentalist Brian Sanderson (piano, violin, valved cavalry horn, mellophone, guitar, etc.), plus a number of guests, Godspeed violinist Sophie Trudeau among them.

Another key detail that sets Esmerine apart is the way its sound design adjusts in response to circumstances. Reminiscent of 2013's Dalmak, which integrated the contributions of Turkish musicians into recording sessions during Esmerine's residency stay in Istanbul, Mechanics of Dominion reflects the band's experience in producing the soundtrack for Freelancer on the Front Lines, an NFB documentary about independent journalism in the Middle East. If anger and aggression sometimes bleed through the album's eight tracks, it might be explained in part as the group's creative response to a film dealing with human oppression, propaganda, and social injustice. It's in these moments that the forty-four-minute release tips the sonic balance in Godspeed's favour, though Esmerine never aligns itself so closely to the Montreal-based outfit that it loses its own identity in the process.

Naturally, Foon's cello and Cawdron's mallet instruments (marimba, bowed marimba, glockenspiel, bowed glockenspiel) figure prominently, but the album's expansive palette also includes guitar, piano, music box, pump organ, voice, field recordings, violin, and viola. At the album's start, elegiac, cello-and-piano-laden passages within “The Space In Between” showcase Esmerine's chamber-classical bona fides, after which music box adds an ethereal dimension to “La Lucha Es Una Sola” that's nicely countered by the earthy grounding imposed by contrabass and strings; the piece gradually turns heavier, too, once Thompson's drums, Sanderson's horn, and Jace Lasek's guitar are factored into the equation.

As the album advances, the material grows more aggressive, and the playing gradually gravitates away from the formal chamber delivery of “The Space In Between” (even if it does return to it for the penultimate “Northeast Kingdom”). Trudeau's tremulous violin lends “¡Que Se Vayan Todos!” a powerfully atmospheric quality, until a rolling wave of feedback unleashes a tumultuous second half powered by Thompson's furious attack, while the subsequent title track maintains the pace, if a little less frenetically, with Foon's cello and Lasek's guitar roaring over a galloping groove. Esmerine's episodic settings are anything but slapdash; arrangements are assembled with painstaking care, each element thoughtfully chosen and judiciously woven into the whole, and acoustic guitar, strings, and marimba infuse the material with a naturalism that makes it feel far removed from anything of a conventional post-rock or electronic character.

November 2017