Isolation, misery and despair. These are the grey building blocks A Swarm of the Sun use to craft their unique soundscapes of depression and suffering. The work of Erik Nilsson and Jakob Berglund, this project has explored the human experience in harrowing ways, most notably on 2015s masterpiece of pain, The Rifts. That album cut a hole in my soul like no other album ever did, even though I was in a good place in life at the time with no particular reason to bask in the suffocating despair the band so effortlessly conjures. Their sparse brand of post-rock/metal and quasi-doom is unlike anything else out there, possessed of a grim power that drains all the light and joy from the world, consigning you to endless cancer wards and funeral parlors to witness the grace and desperation that comes at the end of life. The Woods sees the dour duo return with another dose of downer post-rock, and it’s predictably bleak and unsettling. It seems to be a loosely structured concept album, with just three long-form songs running 40 minutes, and none of those minutes bring anything remotely close to happiness.
Though comprised of three separate songs, after repeated listens to The Woods, the band might as well have made it one singular track. That’s how it plays out in practice anyway. Opener “Blackout” is essentially a droning, haunting instrumental that slowly builds from sparse piano lines and sad viola to funeral procession keys and muted, vaguely black metal tremolo riffing. Though its languid pace should tax one’s patience over its 13-plus minutes, somehow that never happens and you just wait and ruminate in the despairing moments, images of weeping mourners filing past a casket framed with memorial bouquets and arrangements streaming through your mind. You almost feel compelled to pay your respects and observe a somber silence. Vocals don’t appear until the title track, where Jakob Berglund’s soft, fragile and breathy vocals join with a droning organ, as he seemingly whispers sad goodbyes over the coffin of a loved one. It’s an exceedingly depressing setting and one most of us have been through, and this gives the music a sharp, stinging sense of reality, blurring the line between music and real life in an eerie, uncomfortable way.
While the title track eventually moves into heavier territory, it, like “Blackout,” is based around droning, repetitious segments. In the hands of lesser musicians this would not work quite as well, but Nilsson and Berglund weave their magic and keep the compositions moving just enough to keep the listener engaged. Closer “An Heir to the Throne” plays with the usual sparse, uber minimalist arrangements, with Berglund’s vocals the sole lifeline to cling onto. It’s very effective and he gives a heartbreaking performance, conveying the pain of a man in the grips of grief, flailing to find his equilibrium in the wake of a tragedy.
The band threads several recurrent musical ideas through all three pieces to strengthen the sense of a cohesive, singular work1, and it does feel like a continuous narrative about loss and coping with the strange new normal that comes with losing someone close. It’s clear the album is intended to be experienced as a whole rather than as individual songs, and in fact, the songs can only have their optimal impact when heard together. The starkness of the compositions belies their innate effectiveness, as Nilsson and Berglund convey more raw emotion here than any 5 doom albums combined. Less is more proven again and again. The only downside is that this long-form approach ends up feeling more closed off and limited than what the duo did on the more open and expansive The Rifts. There’s a tighter window of storytelling and they utilize fewer ideas to convey their concept, resulting in a more controlled, contained piece of work overall that sometimes feels too sparse and minimalist for its own good. It’s still a soul crushing experience, but I can walk away from it a bit more composed than when I listen intensely to The Rifts.
You don’t walk into a tattoo parlor looking for Renaissance art, and you don’t file into a A Swarm of the Sun record expecting to be cheered up. This is music to despair and brood to – cold and heartbreaking, written for those who like to hurt even when they do not need to. If that’s you, then they’re playing your oh so sad song. B.Y.O.M.C. (bring your own memorial cards).