Petrels: Flailing Tomb
Denovali Records

On the second side of his 1975 album Initiation, Todd Rundgren served up a thirty-five-minute instrumental called “A Treatise On Cosmic Fire,” a risky act of self-indulgence that pushed the vinyl side's limit to its breaking point. The title repeatedly came back to me as I experienced some of the more intense moments—and there are a few—on Petrels' latest opus. Don't get the wrong idea: there's little sonically similar between Rundgren's piece and Flailing Tomb; it's the track title that seems to so indelibly capture the character of Petrels' oft-ferocious soundworld.

For those in need of a memory jog, Petrels is the solo endeavour of London-based musician Oliver Barrett, who brings more than a little thunder to this forty-five-minute follow-up to his Haeligewielle, Onkalo, and Mima releases. But while Flailing Tomb is released as a solo album, Barrett is joined by a number of guests, including Never Sol (vocals), Simon Trevethick (drums), Ben Gaymer (electronics, guitar), David McLean (saxophone), and Innerwoud (double bass). Dedicated to “all lost causes,” the album draws for inspiration from writer Ursula K. Le Guin, Jude The Apostle (patron saint of lost causes), and Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (the lyrics in “Orpheus” were adapted from dialogue in the film).

Barrett wastes little time in establishing the album's intense vibe, as demonstrated when the plodding opener “We Are Falling Into the Heart of the Sun” swells slowly but inexorably to a thunderous pitch. Here and elsewhere, Barrett creates electroacoustic sound masses of awesome density and power, and the listener can't help but be swept up when the cyclone strikes. While “Orpheus” might be the most user-friendly of the album's six tracks, it's no less intense for shifting the focus to singing, specifically a lead vocal by Never Sol accompanied by a choir of five singers. Even when Barrett brings out the melodic pop side of the Petrels project, the musical result can't help but rise to a euphoric level.

Perfectly designed to fill a vinyl album side, the three indexed parts of “L. Caution” (also Alphaville-related, the title refers to the film's protagonist Lemmy Caution) unfold as an uninterrupted, twenty-two-minute epic. By this stage of the album, the listener should probably have become sufficiently attuned to the Petrels universe to anticipate what might be coming, and sure enough the second part's molasses-thick psychedelic drone does turn out to be the proverbial calm before the storm. Stylistically speaking, Petrels isn't punk, metal, or hard rock, yet there's also no denying that the nine-minute closing part roars with the kind of dystopian fury beloved by headbangers everywhere. With Trevethick's drums powering the groove and Gaymer providing additional guitar, “L. Caution, Pt. 3” wails like a banshee, and when the vocal chanting arrives, the material begins to possess the kind of madness generated by The Knife at its most ferocious. If you adhere to the “This record is intended to be listened to loudly” instruction on the inner sleeve, be sure to have the windows closed first, as playing the material at high volume might be so alarming, the neighbours'll be pounding on your door and threatening legal action.

June 2015