Ester Drang’s previous album, Goldenwest, began with a glorious cascade of glassy piano notes and shimmering drones. Sounding like the perfect blend of Steve Reich and Spiritualized, it easily set the mood for an album that delivered one sonic bliss after another. Compare that with the opening minutes of Infinite Keys, with its alien squall of metallic feedback and harrowing strings, and the contrast is rather marked.
Rather than creating an expansive feel, “The Temple Mount” instead feels oppressive. It’s a fitting opening for an album that finds the band stripping away much of the veneer that sheathed their earlier releases. Rather than continue to build on Goldenwest’s sonic heights, Infinite Keys heads the opposite way, drawing within itself and casting its glance inward. And as one might guess from the stormy sounds that open the album, the view is troubling.
While some might bemoan that the band has stripped down some of their sound, the atmospheres are still there. The band’s love of soaring keys and delicate guitar cascades is still apparent, but the songs are much more focused and concise. The noisier textures are integrated more solidly into the songs, and reveal themselves only with repeated listens of the closest variety. For example, it took me a few times before I noticed and appreciated the fluttering synths on “One Hundred Times” or the little dance the vibes and clarinet do around the processed vocals on “No One Could Ever Take Your Face.”
In addition, this more focused approach allows Bryce Chambers’ vocals and lyrics to drift more towards the foreground, and that alone might be the best part of the whole album. Chambers’ voice has always been a beautiful, aching thing. But it has often been buried under many layers, occasionally surfacing from the band’s dense sound for just a moment before being submerged again. This time around, his voice is much more prevalent in the mix, and it gives the album a greater emotional intensity than past recordings.
While I hate to read too much into lyrics, especially when it comes to spiritual matters, I think it’s somewhat obvious that there’s some heavy stuff going down on this album. At times, the lyrics almost feel like a dialog of sorts between Chambers and God, with one song laying out doubts and fears and the next taking on a conciliatory air, with words of divine encouragement and exhortations of faith.
The very first words Chambers’ sings are “You’re missing the point of all I’ve given/And missing out on life worth living.” One can’t help but wonder if Chambers is writing this to himself, trying to remind himself of One that’s “the strength within this strong wind.” However, the very next song finds Chambers’ pleading “You should’ve told me that there’s a meaning/And a beauty that could’ve freed me.” And on it goes, from “Oceans Of You” (“Existence is my gift/Is this reason enough for you?”) to “One Hundred Times” (“If I told you once then I’ve told you a hundred times/I’ve come to rescue you from your self”).
Preventing such lyrics from becoming overwrought or sappy is Chambers’ graceful voice. While nods to Thom Yorke are perhaps unavoidable, there’s a catch and ache in Chambers’ voice that allows it to transcend such easy comparisons. There are moments when he seems to be straying a bit too far into falsetto land, but I don’t really mind if that means I get to hear him croon “This is so like you” from somewhere in the stratosphere.
Although the album is much subtler and restrained overall, there are moments when the band proves they can still cut loose. The harrowing sounds that begin “The Temple Mount” slowly build around Chambers’ plaintive voice. But rather than explode into some show-stopping burst of sound à la Explosions in the Sky, the whole song suddenly seems to collapse around the listener in a move that still gives me goosebumps whenever I hear it. And “Oceans of You” is the album’s most overwhelming moment, as if the all of the sadness of an album like The Soft Bulletin was condensed into a single, 5 minute long whirlwind of sound.
Ester Drang has given me some of the most powerful musical moments I’ve ever had, be it listening to them alone in my car or watching them in a hot, sweaty tent at Cornerstone. Those moments always came when, in the midst of some overwhelming wall of sound, they were able to deliver something truly personal and intimate. And that’s exactly what Infinite Keys is, their most personal and intimate album yet.
Normally, I’m not a fan of a band stripping down their sound. Yes, they may be trying for a more intimate recording, but the approach can often reveal flaws and weaknesses that weren’t all that apparent before. Stripped of embellishment, you can sometimes see just how weak and lacking a band’s songwriting is. However, in Ester Drang’s case, it serves only to reveal the honesty and beauty at the core of their music.