Having seen Western Haunts perform live in the cavernous space of the Vera Project, I can personally attest to the authenticity of Western Haunt’s sound – its vastness, its emotion, and its sheer sonic power have been translated in the recording with amazing fidelity. From the first song, “The Green Room,” the listener is led along a shimmering, electric, tree-canopied river towards a distant virtual mountain vista.
A descending vocal loops in repeat, washing over itself, descending into the rich, floating environment behind the rolling drums and into a soft explosion of guitars, bass and synth. The sound triumphantly conveys the listener across the threshold into the first appearance of the vocals at two minutes-fifty one seconds. The burst of an upward piano arpeggio – countered by descending chords – is ripe with beauty and vitality. But there’s no time to stay longer.
We plummet immediately into “Magazines.” An annex leads us into a long tunnel system; a forlorn and derelict megastructure of immense scale. Magic, spritely particles of light follow, swirling around our heads. At one minute-thirty five, a low, subtle descending chorale synth provides the right amount of the mysterious amid the fantastic. The overall sound is captivating; it washes over you with its equal parts of familiarity and strangeness, swelling with richly textured beauty and strain.
Ghostly backing vocals chase the pleasant, youthful-sounding lead singer. Like the young apprentice hero of a Joseph Campbell-brand myth – this lonesome voice echoes it’s frail, gentle humanity throughout the massive, unrelenting musical environs this record is comprised of. The guitars are arrangement slaves, nothing showy or obscene. These are arrangements, not a series of ridiculous compromises between egomaniacal session players. The drums are spare and open, reliable and strong – a modest vampire feeding off the emotional energy of the band – but only taking what he needs and giving more in return. The bass competently holds down the primary melodic posturing of a given arrangement: upright (figuratively), honest, and clean.
The production itself isn’t so complicated: steady, mature arrangements, clean recording, meticulous mixing, choice reverbs and compression effects. However, it comes down to which reverbs and where, the precise brilliance of the guitar tone, the preservation of the bass guitar, and stereo positioning of each drum element. The specificity with which these things were done is exactly why this record excites the imagination and has the effect of firing on all cylinders, even when it takes a chance.
“Come Around” draws more from the alt-country heritage of the band, until it blindsides you with a throwback surfer chorus – which somehow totally works. It’s assertiveness marks a departure from the placid, smooth nature of the first two songs. The feeling of the song I can only describe as walking along a beach in the blistering heat of the late afternoon. The sun fries everything; it bleaches stone and bakes the sand. Sweat dries to your face as fine salt when the wind passes over the water and inland. Flawless blue skies above, and yet everything has a golden suggestion to it, like a memory.
“When The Lights Dull” goes even further away from the start of the record with it’s near-somnambulant quality. The synth work on this record is understated, but the opening sound here is pertinent to the establishment of the song’s mood. It starts to take shape slowly, but not near as gradually as “The Green Room.” Within the first minute, a tambourine shakes out a rhythm over harmonized vocal stabs and crashing cymbals, bearing the phrase “The lights… dull.” It is quite effective and expertly executed – and most importantly, it sounds awesome. The guitar interlude at three minutes-thirteen is again basic, but exceedingly complementary. Also, that’s an outro to kill for.
“Novocaine” might be the most challenging song on the record, with an odd, broken melody coupled with start and stop passages. And while I may not be able to pinpoint its feeling or that place in my mind where I can picture it, the song doesn’t suffer for lack of performance or imagination. “A Memo” follows, a minute-long segue of reverb-soaked tunnel noise which morphs into a blaring, unsettling cacophony.
“Sirens Den” is a standout track, with a pseudo-reggae vibe buried deep inside the chest of Western Haunt’s other borrowed genres. It has a classic rock feel to it, bringing Pink Floyd and The Wailers to mind in near-equal measure between the distant, shimmering organ and the backing harmonized vocals. I love the vocals on this record. I just do. The mix, compression, microphone, preamp, and voice itself: they all combined to create a unique identity for the lead vocals, but they also impeccably incorporate backing vocals in a tasteful way.
“TV Glow” introduces a little more hand percussion into vibed-out surf rock – which, I suppose, always leaned on certain western music elements (specifically, mega-spacey guitars.) The vocal melody has a slightly “spiritual” sensibility, as though indirectly descended from blues and gospel. Sprinklings of synthesizer help maintain a fantastical element to the music, and that sort of approach kind of reminds me of Fleetwood Mac to a degree.
“It’s Not Enough” ends the record on a lighter, sweeter note. Listening to it, I realized that when I describe a record as cavernous, that could be taken to mean that it is empty somehow. I don’t mean that in this instance at all. All of these songs are “big,” or have some element of major a major scope incorporated into it – but that space is filled with intricate writing and finely-honed performances. This is the Venus of records: a world so inundated with atmosphere that the surface of the planet remains enshrouded in exquisite mystery.
It might take nothing to compare Western Haunts and their self-titled record to certain aspects of Death Cab for Cutie, Wilco, AaRON, Pink Floyd, or other more recent dream-pop/alt-country/shoegaze/post-rock… but no one sounds quite like this. Not exactly. And that counts for something. In order to distinguish themselves, Western Haunts took risks with – and ownership over – their sound. Nothing appears phoned-in or thoughtlessly stamped on the record. It truly sounds like a group of unique individuals, all of them very talented, who then elected to trust each other in order to make a more perfect whole. What they created, perfect or not, is an inspiring, jaw-dropping listening experience.