Review: Daedelus - The Light Brigade

2014-11-25
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Daedelus’ “The Light Brigade” is, in effect, a threnody. It’s a musical meditation on death by war, and I imagine that Alfred Darlington might have written it under the sway of a too-familiar feeling: that the world is slipping against the promise of progress, into some dark old thirst for bloodshed. It makes sense, then, that he would invoke one of the most baffling slaughters of modern history—a military bungle that ended 118 lives in less than half an hour.



Why Daedelus chose this particular example, against so many recent ones, is not entirely clear. It has been the subject of other pop music treatments, not least by Iron Maiden, and the inspiration for the famous poem. The choice is eerily prescient, though, given that the album was written before Ukraine’s recent troubles. The rout of Lord Cardigan’s Light Brigade in Crimea helped to galvanize Russian nationalism, defining their approach to that region up to today. In other words, Daedelus has actually written something very contemporary. It could be, in effect, a requiem for Malaysia Airlines 17.



Clearly, this is a pretty remarkable turn of events. Musically, though, the album is remarkable as well. There’s a clear stylistic shift away from the Daedelus that everyone knows—the guy with the clever glitches, Tropicalia samples and unreliable time signatures. He has mostly shelved his preference for short loops, opting for a more complex (and more traditionally “musical”) series of arrangements. In these, the analog and the digital are difficult to extricate. Instruments combine in the project of a delicate sonic layering. There are nods to the themes and passages of a song-cycle. Snippets of melody approach (but do not quite achieve) synchronicity. Guitar lines fade off, to be picked up later in alternate versions; chord progressions exit and reappear. As such, it’s almost pointless to describe any of the album’s individual songs; they have been written as part of a total, holistic composition.

Daedelus has always been a very knowing character, and his sophistication shows in the way he avoids the clichés of anti-war music. There is none of the snare-and-pipe, the mistake Low made with their otherwise brilliant “Drums and Guns.” Percussion is there—or at least, a pulse—but does not appear as rhythm in any conventional sense. “Until Artillery,” the first track, might have made a too-obvious link, but the beat is no more than a throb. Apart from a brief recital, a stanza or two of Tennyson’s poem, the album’s reference to its subject is limited to song titles and a vaguely hymnal sensibility. The power is communicated through quiet and ordinariness, and through a kind of traumatic repetition. I got the sense of being on the margins of something great and tragic, and also ineffable.



The result is a weighty record, although not a heavy one. These are songs that, I imagine, would be more difficult to make than those that rely on a stylistic sensibility. Daedelus has recorded many of the latter. While I have loved his previous output, I have also felt that he is an artist who relies on a bag of tricks—just that his tricks are very good, and the bag is deep.



“The Light Brigade” shows that this was quite wrong. It suggests that Daedelus can work through musical strategies that require quite distinct kinds of talent, with a depth of subtlety beyond many of his peers. His is a perceptive take on a requiem for our modern wars. It exists in a moment after the martial fanfare has become impossible, even as irony—when it is left to the silent, and the banal, to play us out.

Tracklist
01. Until Artillery
02. Baba Yaga
03. Onward
04. The Victory of the Echo Over the Voice
05. Sevastopol
06. Tsars and Hussars
07. Battery Smoke
08. Belonging
09. Pre-munitions
10. Shot and Shell
11. Country of Conquest