Did you ever feel the floor come out from under your feet? Or have the walls of consciousness come crumbling down in a single sweeping gesture? Do you know what it feels like to die?
I’m sure everyone sees something different at the end of that long dark tunnel, but I suspect Deerhunter’s vision looks and sounds a lot like Microcastle/Weird Era Continued. Picking up the album in a record store, you might be fooled by the innocuous orange-tinted photo – an androgynous person shaded with tousled hair, mouth agape, breath bated. There’s no context whatsoever, so it’s easy to look past the tiny skull buried in the eye of the portrait as just a meaningless trope of today’s pop culture, where an image of a skull holds about as much meaning as the marshmallows in your Lucky Charms.
But make no mistake – this is an album that embraces the spectre of death. That portrait is a weak sign of the haunting experience to follow, but it’s understated, leaving it to loom greater. The non-descript face, the glazed expression, the unearthly glow; it seems so unnatural, yet still organic. There’s something beyond the edge of the canvas, possibly something morbid or beautiful or exhilarating. And that something bleeds ominously through the speakers when you flip on the record.
There’s a chill that runs through your blood when the bombastic instrumental opener kicks into gear. It’s the feeling of being thrown right into top gear, or getting pressed into your seat by the kickstart of a launched rollercoaster. From that moment onwards, the album shows you little vignettes of fractured sing-song art punk. Then “Microcastle” hums in on a lilting melody and an arpeggio on a cloudy day. It might sound tender and heartfelt to most, but personally, I hear the haunting tremolos of an empty dream. Like a last testament spoken with a dying breath, the song carries on sluggishly, dragging its heels. If you get too lost in the atmospherics, you might even forget to breath. And then, as if summoning the courage and willpower for a last fight, the drums start up and a harsh fuzzy distortion fills the void. The shift is jarring enough to be startling, and it serves a reminder how slowly a presence can fill a space without you noticing. I’ll give you three guesses to figure out what that presence is.
In the middle of Weird Era Continued, there’s this little gem. With a fair amount of feedback and tape hiss, “Vox Celeste” rushes by and only adds more noise to the picture. A fairly conventional pop structure catapults this track from the recesses of angular sound experiment into an adrenaline-soaked hymn. Still, everything is buried under layers of abstract sounds and enough screechy guitars to make Sonic Youth blush. Amazingly, even though the track is catchy and bouncy and supports a tune and rhythm that’s easy to follow, there’s absolutely nothing upfront about it. The lyrics are undecipherable, there’s no clue as to what making what noise, and who knows how many instruments/singers/audio tracks there are? Like a near death experience, this song is easy to feel, but hard to put into words. You know it’s there and you know it means something, but somehow it amounts to more than simple words can state.
Haunting. It’s the only word I can manage to think of when I listen to this album. And I know that Microcastle and its sister album Weird Era Continued can seem like opaque and obscured hipster trash instead of genuinely affecting, but I can never shake the feeling of the album as somewhat damning. This is the album that I turn to when something forces me to think about the world as larger than myself, and it’s the album that keeps me needing to remind myself who I am.