An unmatched piece of absolute musical brilliance. maudlin of the Well, a small and rather obscure band from the Boston area, have managed to compose what may be one of the most incredible, original pieces of music in the last decade. I'll attempt to encompass everything about what makes this album so incredible in a reasonable amount of time but I fear I cannot do it justice. Oh well, here goes.
Bath is the sophomore album by maudlin of the Well, released two years after their first album My Fruit Psychobells... A Seed Combustible, and is the first album of a double release, the other being Leaving Your Body Map. While Bath and Leaving Your Body Map aren't really a double album, they were released together because the albums are very much tied together thematically and stylistically, and while they are totally separate pieces of music, they complement each other in ways no other albums have been able to do. I'll explain this interdependence in more detail in the Leaving Your Body Map review.
maudlin of the Well's style can best be described as "avant-garde metal", but this doesn't totally describe the immense amount of diversity found within their music. A couple of different metal styles are prominent, most noticeably death metal, doom metal, and progressive metal, but interwoven between these metal sections can be found elements of everything from post rock, indie rock, psych/space, and ambient, to jazz, funk, fusion, classical, and chamber rock. Shifts in style are found between tracks and often inside songs themselves; tracks can go from blazing death metal to mellow funk, from trippy space sections to jazzy progressive rock, all within the context of a song. From a description standpoint the transitions sound very jarring and poorly constructed, but incredibly, they work. And they work outstandingly well. I'll explain more during the track-by-track breakdown.
Instrumentally the album is very sound, and all the pieces are performed admirably and complement each other excellently. In addition to the traditional guitar, bass, and drums of a metal band, other untraditional instruments, like the saxophone, flute, clarinet, horn, and church organ, make their way into the song lines. The instruments are played well and do an excellent job complementing the mood and composition of the song. Herein lies one of maudlin of the Well's strengths: while they have very strong experimental and avant-garde tendencies, they never lose sight of the fact that they are a metal band at heart. We still get enough strong riffing, excellent headbanging melodies, and impressive soloing to counteract the heavy experimentation, ultimately creating a fine line between the metal and avant-garde, one from which the band impressively never teeters off of.
Lyrically this album is ridiculously strong. The lyrics, in all sung or spoken forms, are actual poetry, and have a very mystical nature to them, inspiring impressive or wondrous images relating to the theme (more on this later). The poetry itself is very sharp and at times incredibly beautiful, complementing the beautiful nature of the music very well. Three singers are heard on the album: Jason Byron, the primary composer of the lyrics, provides the harsh death metal growls. Toby Driver, the primary musical composer and frontman of the band, sings a clean lead and occasionally provides screams to back up Byron. They are complemented by a female vocalist who sings on a few tracks. Byron's growls are very good, deep and throaty, and provide for some interesting balancing acts in the music. Toby Driver provides an incredible range of vocals, ranging from soft, indie-rock-esque clean vocals, high, angelic vocals, and bone-chilling screams, all of which are done incredibly well. The female vocals are almost operatic and are similarly effective.
While not a concept album, both Bath and Leaving Your Body Map thematically deal with the concept of astral projection and lucid dreaming. Indeed, at the time of the album's release, Toby Driver advocated astral projection as the main mode of composition for the album. Allow me to briefly explain: astral projection is a practice held in certain esoteric beliefs that (in concept) allows the practitioner to separate their physical body from their ethereal spirit (this ties into Leaving Your Body Map's name), which then has free realm amongst the heavens. They believe that there exists a sort of cosmic "library" in the astral plane (the spirit's theoretical plane of existence), where all forms of art are already in existence, catalogued, if you will, in this massive archive. This makes the composer of the music more of a vessel between the astral plane's music and our realm. Driver has explained that their goal as a band wasn't to "compose" music per se, rather, to interpret this preexisting music into a worldly form through astral projection by means of lucid dreaming. Whether you buy this concept or not is up to you, but there is something to be said about the subject of dream compositions. There is something incredibly awe-inspiring about the music on Bath, however. Everything has a sort of spacey undertone to it; maybe it's the spacey keys, but something about this album definitely seems otherworldly. It's rather tough to describe, but something about the album just feels as though it's... inspired. Like it took a form of its own. It's not a pleasant or trippy kind of spacey either as is seen in your typical psych/space rock, but rather, it has a very eerie, spooky, almost malevolent feel to it, like it was composed by some great evil entity in the astral planes. These horrifically mystifying undertones are absolutely titillating and give the album its incredible otherworldly feel. Nothing I have ever heard before is comparable, it's really necessary to discover this through listening to the album by one's self.
There are a few other themes explored in the album's lyrics, all similar in topic, dealing with things such as the mysteries of death, salvation, eternality, and mysticism, though all through a non-religious lens. Also present are themes of relationships and love, though what it is symbolic of I can never know. The band has never explicitly stated what many of the lyrics mean. I will attempt to interpret the meanings of this album in a track-by-track analysis.
The album opens with "The Blue Ghost / Shedding Qliphoth", an instrumental piece. This very spacey piece opens with some soft false guitar harmonics, followed by some soft, echoic, and very spacey guitar chords. There's some phenomenal spacey ambience in the first part of the track, and eventually some light percussion kicks in, accompanied by some floaty backing acoustic guitar. A very jazzy, smooth saxophone plays a soothing lead. The piece gradually builds up, adding some background keys and ambience before the percussion becomes heavy and the guitar distortion kicks in, creating a sort of heavy metal version of the original melody. The transition is loud and initially jarring, but it does an excellent job setting up for what will inevitably be a shock on the next track. A spacey keyboard closes the final note.
What comes next is totally unexpected. "They Aren't All Beautiful" begins with some background guitar distortion before kicking into a whirlwind of furious death metal. Blast beats, machine-gun bass pedal, heavy guitar riffs and Byron's relentless growling provide a stark contrast to the otherwise peaceful intro to the album. What follows is some otherwise excellent death metal; awesome chugging riffs and evil vocals make for a riotous headbanging fest for a minute or so. Eventually the rhythm seriously slows down with some heavy grinding riffs, that has a lot of start-and-stop heaviness. Driver's screams are incredibly effective here, with some very awesome lyrics related to what appears to be the imitation and interpretation of art. Eventually this stops, however, and the song turns sort of mellow. A groovy bassline and less chugging guitars make for a cool funky section before a super-jazzy baritone saxophone joins the fray and creates a very cool funky metal section that goes quiet before one last evil death metal section at the end of the song. This is probably the heaviest piece the band has composed.
"Heaven and Weak" is one of the strongest tracks on the album and opens with a very soft, jazzy rock piece that has some interesting folksy acoustic guitar lines and an unidentifiable plucky string instrument, possibly a violin, but it's not easily discernible because the instrument is plucked. Some soft synth and strong echoic vocals from Driver make a very soothing piece for the first few minutes. Eventually the percussion and guitar distortion kick in in a way similar to on the first track. This continues with soothing vocals and a wailing guitar before the whole deal quickly turns sinister. A fast and wailing guitar solo and a drum roll leads into a very hectic heavy metal section. The metal here is seriously awesome: fast, heavy, and with some excellent riffage. Eventually the metal turns into a synth-fueled proggy section with some very crazed-sounding vocals on Driver's part. Before the song ends we get a cool breakdown, although that isn't the right word for it, but an amazing breakdown nonetheless that only involves a clean guitar and strong percussion.
"Interlude 1" is a short piece (~1:30) with some light acoustic guitar, guitar percussion, and upright bass. It's very pleasant and an effective interlude that is actually very well catchy.
The soft interlude is contrasted by the loud intro to the next song, "The Ferryman", which opens with a grand church organ. Some eerie organ music gives way to an absolute break in music that starts with some soft drumming. A very soft guitar line joins some soft jazzy drumming for a brief spell before the song suddenly and abruptly erupts into a twisted heavy metal section, with some doomy riffs and evil-sounding growls, backed by shrill screams. This is a short section that eventually turns into a percussion driven rock section with operatic female vocals and the church organ backing the melody. Eventually the rest of the music fades away, leaving a lone organ note that fades to the sound of water sifting around (not in a river or anything, it could actually be in a bathtub given the timbre of the water sloshing) inside a container as creepy chanting begins to build. This chanting turns into an incredibly creepy cacophony of incomprehensible suffocating voices that all die at the same moment, leaving just the eerie sound of water being circled around and the sound of it inside an echoing chamber. Given the title and the post-music section, I'm inclined to believe that this album is about the death cycle, the bath water and the chilling voices being the damned souls drowning in the River Styx, reaching out for aid as the Ferryman (the one whose boat guides a soul's passage into the netherworld) passes over silently. How this relates to the idea of astral projection I'm not totally sure but it does relate to the themes of birth and rebirth found later in the album.
The echoing water noises segue into the next track, "Marid's Gift of Art", that is a soft piece with some excellent folksy guitars and some rather beautiful lyrics provided by a soft-voiced Driver. Eventually a horn lead takes over vocals and a bowed bass create a somewhat neoclassical feel to the song. It's over rather quickly, and while the song isn't weak at all, it may be comparatively the weakest track on the album.
What follows next is an absolute behemoth of an emotional piece, "Girl with a Watering Can". It starts off with a soothing clarinet solo piece that eventually leads into a light, post- rock-ish section with light percussion and some interesting guitar layering. Some spacey synth adds a light bit of unease or tension to this pleasant piece before some pretty female vocals kick in. The drumming is good on this track so far, and eventually this section ends as a softer metal section kicks in, with some heavier drumming. The vocals here suddenly become rather echoic, Toby Driver chiming in on the high points, and the continued guitar layering and strong harmonies make for some very beautiful, albeit still unsettling music. Toby eventually takes lead with some soft vocals over a similar melody, that slowly fades off while a light guitar persists. Then, after a brief moment of silence, the melody is repeated with huge distortion, and a strong, high guitar lead and eerie keys create an amazing spacey metal section. Eventually this piece deconstructs into something softer with some soft, almost whispered vocals by Driver. This track is incredibly good; if ever there was such thing as "beautiful metal", then "Girl with a Watering Can" would be it, mixing beautiful melodies with crushing doses of heaviness and creating a really emotional piece of music.
Up next is the 11 minute epic "Birth Pains of Astral Projection." The piece starts out with a soft, pleasant melody that continues for a few minutes. The tone is generally pretty happy, but after a few minutes the tone of the piece turns somewhat sinister. It gets a bit heavier and some layered vocals by Driver turn into a creepy chanting section. A wailing guitar and some spacey keys give this section a very ethereal feel before Jason Byron enters the scene again. His growls here are a bit more bellowy than usual, but he makes them sound incredibly sinister and vicious, even over a comparatively light section. It makes for an interesting balance, and Toby's backing screams are absolutely furious. This continues for a bit until it enters a softer section. Toby does his indie rocker voice over a soft melody with an excellent bassline. By the end of the song this melody amplifies into something much stronger with an impressive guitar solo. The soft section resumes for a brief spell with some interesting lyrics before fading out on a soft key note. The song's title here is a clear reference to the astral projection theme, and the "birth pains" may be some sort of reference to whatever unknown process may be required for astral projection to occur; it could be a reference to the fifth and six tracks' themes, with the ultimate process be dying in some literal or metaphysical way required for the separation of body from spirit into the astral planes.
"Interlude 2" is an absolutely wonderful little song. It opens up with, interestingly enough, the sound of someone slapping their hands on the surface of some water container, and this actually becomes the percussion section of the song. A punchy upright bass, a cheery acoustic guitar, and some playful piano lines make this almost a happy little bathtime ditty. As the music fades out, a very beautiful synth note lingers for a brief moment, retaining the happy feel that the interlude generates.
"Geography" is the epic conclusion to an epic album, and it's an incredibly beautiful piece of music, with some sorrowful acoustic guitar and some rather sad vocals from Driver. The lyrics here are also particularly beautiful. The song is relatively simple, but by the time it reaches a finale, all the instruments and vocals and come together for one last grand rush, all swirling together into a wondrously beautiful conclusion to a stunning album.
I'm going to be a bit biased here. I know this review is incredibly long, and I'd be surprised if anyone actually made it this far, but this is truly one of the most incredible pieces of music ever written. The album is phenomenally well done and incredibly consistent, and with so much material covered as well. It's a truly beautiful and moving masterpiece and such a shame that an unbelievably talented band will remain so obscure in the annals of musical history.
Unfortunately maudlin of the Well will be doomed to obscurity. The music on this album is far too inaccessible and varied for most audiences to enjoy, but if you fancy yourself a hardened music listener, or are looking for something truly original, look no further. It's very hard to find a hard copy of this album but if you do manage to find one, you'd be remiss not to take the opportunity.
Absolute highest five-star rating easily deserved, and it has my utmost recommendations for any fan of experimental music or anyone willing to challenge themselves with a difficult but thoroughly rewarding listen.
Standout tracks: Every single one.