By Brandon Hoffman–
Williams Lake has a pretty small music scene. Given that I play music with one Brent Morton (aka Drum and Bell Tower) all the time, and even played a small part in the making of his new album, reviewing said album might be a slight conflict of interest. So make no mistake, this is not a review. This is a straight up plug. That said, it would not be in my best interest as a music promoter living in a small town to push anything I didn’t believe in 100%. I wouldn’t feed you any lies.
On July 28, 2016, Drum and Bell Tower released the nine-track EP Existential Qualifier on his bandcamp page for $7. Five of the tunes have lyrics, and the remaining four are instrumentals. On the surface it’s completely divergent, showing completely different sides of Morton’s musicality from song to song. But lyrically speaking the tunes click together into a poignant and unwavering whole.
Previous D&BT albums have typically explored a particular palette of instruments and sounds, giving each of them an individual flavour (personal favourites probably being Scratch Out Your Name or Out Of The Time). Tracks on Existential Qualifier, however, bounce from acoustic guitar folk jams and electronic beat-heavy noise-scapes, to sludgy synth driven prog anthems. The songier songs fit together aesthetically a bit closer than the instrumentals. They’re glued together by massive sprawling choruses, and layers of gritty guitars and synths.
Morton notes that there was a real sense of urgency in the production of the album, as he and his partner Ciel were expecting a child and this was one last kick at the can before launching into parenthood. The bulk of the record was recorded in around a week (!). That urgency may or may have not contributed to the mix-tape feel of the record, but it certainly gave a sense of spontaneity felt throughout.
And still, the radically different tangents are subtle and complementary. While the instrumental track “Existential Pacifier” might be a bit sappy for my liking, I’d let him get away with it. It’s proof that the hard rockin’, hard lookin’ philoso-punk is actually a bit of a softy.
The thread that ties the whole record together are the lyrics. The album starts with a quote from the article “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene” By Roy Scranton: “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though the body is already dead, one gains freedom in the way.” In the record’s liner notes on bandcamp, Morton expands on this line, which proves to be a central theme of the whole record: “…I’ve […] been released somewhat from stress and worry by just reminding myself that it is already over…and every day from this on will offer, until the collapse, more moments of tenuous pleasure and joy—the like of which bring with them that opposite reality of suffering and sadness, but of which I happen to have landed, through some cosmic fluke, on the pampered end.”
Although focusing on death (both literal and otherwise), and taking a lot of inspiration from the complex emotions following the loss of a close friend, the record has a strangely uplifting tone. The song International Anthem (my personal favourite on the album) evokes a feeling of love and community in a potentially overwhelming world, reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. If it seems like I’m making a lot of bookish comparisons, this isn’t accidental. There are a lot of big ideas in the handful of lyrical songs on the record, and the instrumentals give the listener a chance to meditate on them for a minute.
If you’re new to Drum and Bell Tower, definitely also try out the records Scratch Out Your Nameand / or Out Of The Time. But regardless, give Existential Qualifier a spin: drumandbelltower.bandcamp.com