Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies — all these are private and, except through second hand, incommunicable. –Aldous Huxley, “The Doors of Perception”
I’m a shadow waiting in the blue / I’m a magnet with its poles confused / All my failures are lost on you. –Milagres, “Terrifying Sea”
Shadows can be playful: You’re a little kid, making shadow puppets in the tent. Shadows can be menacing: You’re walking alone on an unfamiliar street, and the shifting shapes of darkness stalk you.
The music of Milagres explores the duality of shadows. There’s a prettiness in the swirling synth and dreamy pop, reminiscent of ’80s sounds and textures. Kyle Wilson weaves his gorgeous voice through the songs, shifting between baritone and falsetto. But there’s also an existential darkness to the lyrics and a sense of foreboding created by the band’s use of negative space. Layers of guitars, keys, and synth surge against a backdrop of steady drumming, and then the instruments abruptly pull back and pause, letting Wilson’s vocals shimmer in the darkness.
Last month, the Brooklyn-based Milagres released their third album, “Violent Light” (which you can download here). The band’s sound is bigger here — as Wilson puts it, they wanted “something that was massive and anthemic.” This time, Wilson, Fraser McCulloch (bass), and Chris Brazee (keyboard, synths) are joined by their new bandmate, Paul Payabyab (drums).
Milagres has drawn comparisons to Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Prince, Bowie, and Peter Gabriel. I would add that I hear some of The Doors‘ psychedelic ambience. But what caught my ear is the way in which Milagres juxtaposes a poetic pathos with brilliant bursts of uplifting notes, such as in “Jeweled Cave.” There’s something about their music that is simultaneously pretty and unsettling — think of the high ostinato in “Halfway” or the repetition of an eerie four-note phrase in “To Be Imagined” (does this remind anyone else of the Twilight Zone?).
I recently saw Milagres perform at DC9. It was my third time seeing them live, and they just get better and better. I especially love the latest album’s meditation on opposites. Organic imagery (I drop the seeds/They will disperse on the wind’s tongue) is set against the mechanical and synthetic (Dancing in an iron lung/floating in a black balloon). Desolate wilderness (I’ve heard you whisper through the windy crags/I’ve watched you blunder across the frozen lakes) coexists with sterile cityscapes (Now everything is under a column of streetlight).
Milagres does not set out to resolve these contradictions — instead, there’s a dance of dialectics through each song and the album as a whole. This is the kind of music that rewards repeated listening.
“The Letterbomb” is one of the standouts on this album.
There’s a playfulness in the almost funky guitar grooves in the opening. The song is theatrical and expansive, with soaring vocals accentuated by the use of reverb. At around 2:12, the music fades out, making way for sampled voices, an overlap of adult and child. The words are mostly unintelligible, but I picture the New Mexico desert in 1945, moments before the detonation of the first nuclear bomb. A voice counts down the seconds. Elsewhere, children play, oblivious to the event that prompted Oppenheimer’s quotation from the Bhagavad Gita: I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. (I’m using my imagination, but I’m not making this out of whole cloth: Wilson’s grandfather worked on the Manhattan Project.)
“The Letterbomb” might be interpreted as a postmodernist engagement with the effect of life sciences on the distinction between human and non-human, natural and artificial: I’ve dreamt of scientific miracles / fresh bodies built for men with only heads . . . Singing with a twisted tongue / dancing in an iron lung.
Whatever you want to read into the lyrics of the songs, the overall effect of “Violent Light” is hypnotic and haunting. It produces the sonic equivalent of a retinal afterglow — the contours of the songs linger after the music stops.
Like Yeats’ imagery of a falcon turning and turning in the widening gyre, the lyrics in “Violent Light” are suggestive of the anarchy outside these beautifully-constructed walls of sounds and words. But we’re not paralyzed by existential hand-wringing. The ice will break, the grass will grow. There is room for us in the liminal space that is framed by Milagres’ music. And there are new soundscapes to be imagined.
(Seriously, just download the new album now, or if you prefer, get the LP. It’s the best $7 you’ll spend this week. And for all you lucky people going to SXSW (btw I hate you), Milagres will be performing March 12-15.)