By Ethan Bloomfield, Contributor
[Single Occupancy; 2020]
Key tracks: “Where Did You Go?”, “All Days Just End”, “Antechamber”
The rise of maximalism in music is an arms race soon to come to a close, but being as blown out, loud and abrasive as possible can only go so far. It is a spectacle, but one with a firm ceiling until noise becomes a Merzbow-esque discordance of sound and static. All that to say this: understatement in music is almost unfashionable in the modern zeitgeist. The meteoric rise of the likes of 100 gecs might seem like a death knell for the stripped-back, contemplative sounds of Sinai Vessel, but this contrast works to the North Carolina indie rock outfit’s advantage; this true alternative manifests itself in their second studio album, Ground Aswim. It’s an understated and expressive piece of indie rock that’s full of bare-naked lyrics and poignant instrumentals to achieve a captivating, though quiet, 47 minutes.
The album kicks off with the song “Where Did You Go?”, a melancholic opener with beautiful guitar work from Caleb Cordes over a simple percussion section. Nothing, not even the vocals that come in later, overpower any other element of the music. It is harmonious in its presentation, and this attention to detail shines through. Even with the simplicity of this record apparent from the first track, the band does an amazing job of keeping the music interesting. Something as minor as a touch of extra cymbals, a lonesome piano melody or a change in vocal inflection keep even the six or seven minute long songs interesting and fresh.
Even the “fuller” tracks show a sort of artistic restraint that helps the album come into its own identity fully. Songs like “Shameplant” and “All Days Just End”, songs that are more lively with more guitars, a faster pace, or are simply just louder than some of the other tracks all still work completely in this record’s environment. It sounds almost like a garage or homespun record, like music one would hear at a local battle of the bands. This small-time charm, coupled with the vocals tending to “fade out” when they get too loud, as if Cordes is in the next room singing it, brings this album a flavor that is deeply personal and deliberate. A cohesive tracklist to this degree does not come by accident.
Ground Aswim is a personal album, but it is also a saddening, defeatist listen. The final song on the album, “Antechamber”, is an up-front depressing track. The vocals seem lost, the guitar only supports the vocals rather than accompanying them, and the lyrics spell a sense of defeat: “If I was wrong I’d rather / It’d have been a dream / Than have to sort back through the story / And be forced to learn anything.” The percussion builds along with the repetitive guitars, and a piano melody emerges from overtop to cap off the growing emotion encased in a muted, somber sense of self pity.
This record feels whole. Ground Aswim has no frills, no filler. It is simply the music that it presents, and is presented in a way that does not and cannot distract the listener from its main objective. It is satisfying and completely in its element. While the songs can sometimes sound a little same-y, the driving force of this album is its simplicity.