Sicker Man: Flower my Decay
Blank Records

Sicker Man: Zu Gegen
Blank Records

Two dramatically different sides of Tobias Vethake's Sicker Man project are captured on these separate but concurrently issued releases. On the one hand there's Zu Gegen, an instrumental set of evocative post-rock and ambient-electronic sounds, and on the other Flower My Decay, an ear-catching collection of vocal songs. Though Vethake studied classical cello at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hannover, he subsequently found himself drawn to songwriting and developed facility on a number of instruments, details that help explain why two releases of such contrasting character have come into being at the same time.

Zu Gegen is packaged as a 45-rpm twelve-inch featuring two long-form pieces, with the download version supplemented by a short remix of the title track and a bonus piece, “Black Hole.” With the exception of trombone playing by Michael Vethake and Luka Paul Vethake on side one, Tobias plays all instruments on the recording, including guitar, bass, mandolin, synthesizers, electric piano, drums, and electronics. The A-side's twelve-minute title piece is a dramatic ambient-classical moodscape of foreboding character drenched in strings and electronics. It's a quietly powerful exercise in slow-burn, as Vethake methodically shapes the various elements into a quietly rumbling mass of potentially eruptive quality before moving into a plaintive electric guitar-based closing section. By comparison, “Timeliner” establishes a more hopeful spirit in its opening minutes when Vethake inaugurates the piece with a delicate weave of synthetic strings and gentle guitar strums. The material then gravitates towards post-rock when a simple drum pattern accompanies the guitar's insistently lulling patterns, and then slowly swells in magnitude until it reaches a ferocious pitch. Vethake executes the transitions between the contrasting sections with care and deliberation, which in turn gives the fifteen-minute setting the feel of a satisfyingly resolved journey. The remix registers as a more radio-friendly rendering of the title piece, with the trombones forcefully declaiming against a dense backing of drums and electronics. Dense, too, is “Black Hole,” though the effect generated is more akin to a large, opaque mass of drums, trombones, and electronics rolling unstoppably across open terrain.

Though press release info cites Nick Drake and Blur as possible references for Flower My Decay, the songs' melodic qualities and elaborate arrangements more naturally invite comparison to Coldplay, The Smashing Pumpkins, and The Beatles. Adding music boxes, strings, and electronics to the songs proved to be a wise move on Vethake's part as they extend their already melodically rich sound worlds in compelling sonic manner, too (all of the material was played by Vethake with the exception of percussion on one song by Michael Vethake and additional vocals on three songs by Kiki Bohemia). Bowed strings help render the heavy, Beatles-esque opener “Liquid Soul” memorable, while the folk-styled presentation of “Heaven's a Machine” makes it one of the disc's standouts. “Bold Morning” and “Tide” could pass for classic ballads by The Smashing Pumpkins, given how easy it would be to imagine Billy Corgan's snarl in place of Vethake's. His songwriting talents are well-documented in the title song, where hypnotic melodies exude a sadness that's amplified by lyrics like “I will be found way underground / Where you can never hear me,” and in his ability to repeatedly elevate the album with strong hooks. It's an eclectic and rewarding collection that ranges from the noisy ramshackle shuffle of “Useless Ticks” and the cryptic balladry of the title track to the dark electro-funk of “Lazy Bone.” Put simply, Flower My Decay is the relatively rare example of a recording that exceeds expectations rather than falls short of them.

September 2012