Monday, August 20th, 2012

Spectral Dusk

Evening Hymns and Fiver at The Theatre Centre in Toronto

Photo By Frank YangFrank YangJonas Bonnetta’s father passed away in February of 2009. Less than six months later, my own father was also gone. There’s a temptation to see that parallel as some explanation for why Spirit Guides, Bonnetta’s debut album as Evening Hymns, struck such a chord in me and would be one of the records that got me through that terrible year, but I think that presumes too much. I didn’t know any of the circumstances under which it was written and recorded; I just thought that it was a beautiful record.

I can’t make that same claim with respect to the follow-up album Spectral Dusk, having learned the circumstances behind its creation and being very aware of how it intersected with my own. And as curious as I was to hear Bonnetta’s meditations on the loss of his father, there was no small amount of anxiousness over here about what sort of reactions might trigger in me. For the fact is that while I write the equivalent of four or five short essays a week and can modestly claim to be pretty good at organizing and expressing thoughts, I’ve not really dealt in any tactile, therapeutic way with my own bereavement over the past three years. I’ve written nothing, only talked a little, and basically concentrated on just keeping my head above water and getting by; what else can you do? This isn’t to say that there’s an ocean of unresolved issues bubbling under the surface, but the prospect of hearing a son working through the experience in song – songs that I wanted to hear regardless – became a very real source of anxiety. Anxiety, but also hope. Perhaps I would be able to project my own story onto them – the way people are certain that the songs they hear on the radio are written specifically for them, about them – and use them as a shortcut of sorts to get myself through the grieving process.

Of course it wasn’t that easy. Death may be universal but is also intensely personal, and Spectral Dusk belongs to Bonnetta alone; he’s simply chosen to share it with us. It’s filled with vignettes, characters, and locales from his family history, rendered in fine detail and with light metaphor. The emotional reverberations may resonate with the listener in a way that could be their own, but Dusk is not nearly opaque enough to allow them to craft their own interpretation of what the songs are about. Unless you lived these songs, you are just a spectator. Musically, it aligns nicely with Spirit Guides in evoking rustic, mist-shrouded landscapes dotted with thick stands of trees, but simultaneously more expansive and fine-grained. A headphone record if ever there was one, it’s filled with determined little touches throughout the sonic field the pull you in and gives you a sense of the immense scale of what you’re hearing.

For the sad and angry places that it comes from, Spectral Dusk is a remarkably gentle record. Three years on, it exists in the acceptance stage; well past rage or bargaining. Inchoate grief has been allowed to coalesce into words and be spoken out loud, and when it reaches the inevitable point where words fail, as there will always be that which can barely be comprehended let alone conveyed, it steps back and allows atmospheric field recordings – as opens the album, underpins the instrumental “Irving Lake Access Road”, and provides the distant coda of “Spectral Dusk” – to articulate. With Dusk, Bonnetta has crafted a detailed and affectionate portrait of his father, family, and their relationships, and it’s certainly enough to know that our stories only intersect at tangents. Our fathers weren’t so similar in life and probably not in death and while I might have wanted Spectral Dusk to stand in proxy for working things out, it’s clear that it’s something I’ll have to do for myself. I can only hope that if and when I do, whatever comes of it will be a fraction as moving as Spectral Dusk is.

Whatever difficult emotions the Spectral Dusk material brought up in me as a listener must have been minuscule in comparison to how Bonnetta would feel in performing it live, but on Friday night in front of a more-than-full house at The Great Hall’s Theatre Centre, Evening Hymns held the record release show for the album – officially out on Tuesday – as part of the Summerworks music series. Opening things up were Fiver, perhaps better known as the new project from Simone Schmidt of $100. What the existence of Fiver means for the future of $100 is unclear, but Fiver are not the fraction of $100 that their name might imply. They’re smaller, yes – it was just Schmidt and a second guitarist up there this time – but fans will find much familiar about the sound of her worn vocals recounting tales of hardship over twanging, droning guitars.

Over the many times I’ve seen Evening Hymns live, the only constant in the band has been Bonnetta and Sylvie Smith (originally just on backing vocals, now on bass as well); the rest of the band has ranged in numbers from zero to a whole bunch, depending on who amongst their many collaborators were available or needed for the occasion. They were a seven-piece this time out, with a couple extra guitars, drums, violin/keys, and trumpet/accordion to fill things out nicely and ably recreate the many sounds and textures of the record

With the stage surrounded by branches and candles and the band bathed in the ghostly light of projections and home movies handled by artist Sean Frey, Bonnetta and company faithfully recreated much of Spectral Dusk. They managed to include many of the little nuances that most wouldn’t have been noticed had they been left out, and taking advantage of the dynamics that live performance, imbued the material with a level of emotional release that the recordings don’t quite reach; it’s not a shortcoming of the production by any means, it’s just something that you get with volume. The weightiness of the new material was defused somewhat by Bonnetta’s easy manner and between-song banter, and by reaching back to Spirit Guides for some of its more upbeat offerings. The show ended, as Spectral Dusk does, with the title track performed alone by Bonnetta as a single-song encore. A sombre, yet uplifting finale with a son trying to create and capture that one last conversation with his father.

BlogTO also has a review of the show, and while CBC Radio captured the whole thing for a future broadcast, Mechanical Forest Sound is already sharing a track from his recording with the rest to follow soon. NOW, Dorkshelf, Arboretum Festival, and all have interviews with Bonnetta about Spectral Dusk, while CBC Music talks to Simone Schmidt about Fiver.

Photos: Evening Hymns, Fiver @ The Theatre Centre – August 17, 2012
MP3: Evening Hymns – “Arrows”
MP3: Evening Hymns – “Dead Deer”
MP3: Evening Hymns – “Broken Rifle”
MP3: Evening Hymns – “Cedars”
Video: Evening Hymns – “Family Tree”
Video: Evening Hymns – “Dead Deer”
Video: Fiver – “Oh Sienna”
Stream: Evening Hymns / Spectral Dusk

Having teased out the tour – he’s at Lee’s Palace on October 21 – and the existence of a new solo record, A.C. Newmam has revealed the title of said album – Shut Down The Streets – as well as the album art, viewable at Exclaim, and first MP3. All we need now is a release date more specific than “Fall”, but one of the Tuesdays prior to the tour’s commencement would make sense. My money is on October 16. Update: Missed it by that much. Matablog says October 9.

MP3: A.C. Newman – “I’m Not Talking”

By : Frank Yang at 8:33 am
Category: Concert Reviews

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  1. Adam says:

    This is a really spot-on review, Frank. It was a fantastic and hard hitting show.

  2. Urban Planner: September 7, 2012 | events | Torontoist says:

    […] enhanced by projection artist Sean Frey, who made Evening Hymns’ CD release last month especially memorable. The Music Gallery (197 John Street), 7 p.m., $12 in […]