Smoke curls from a lit cigarette, set against the ashtray. Heightening the smell of perfume wafting throughout the room. It’s not unpleasant – you are familiar with the scent, after all – but there’s something else with Love Exchange Failure from White Ward. Something coppery, tied to the perfume, almost beckoning the curious to take a closer look. And you do, on pure impulse, because there’s something so compelling about how this scene is set that you can’t seem to articulate. That coppery smell turns out to be blood, and the trail it leads to your own dead body on the floor. It can’t be; after all, you are alive. Coming closer, you notice the intricate markings on the body, ones that you don’t see on your own. The marks look self-inflicted, as if your dead doppelgänger had scratched itself to bits, and you can’t help your fascination of the details. They swirl around the body’s forearm, making a slow rise to the shoulders. They look delicate, but you can see they were dug deep in the flesh. You wake up from visions of your dead body and the marks down your arms, making sure that you don’t have them yourself, and then shake your head, wondering what kind of internalization was going through your mind while you slept.
This is the mood White Ward’s newest album, Love Exchange Failure, gave me while listening to it, which is a testament to the music’s layering and atmosphere and the cohesiveness of the instrumentation White Ward has embedded into their sound.
I’m not going to spend time talking about how Love Exchange Failure constructs its music, allowing for a marriage between the dissonant textures of black metal and the clear jazz tones of the backing saxophone that tends to become the focal point throughout the album. Or how the album’s themes discuss the banality of urban life and how we’re fundamentally alone within the confines of our existence. I am especially not going to discuss how the soundscape White Ward creates leads to many thoughts of fear, repulsion, and intimacy. Instead, I’m going to allow myself to go full stream of consciousness and talk about how Love Exchange Failure is both intimate and distant in its setup and reminiscent of a film noir aesthetic that makes me want to crawl out of my skin.
Love Exchange Failure is heavy, filled with the aforementioned themes and the sheer weight of its instrumentation like the thoughts that come to you when you sleep at night. It’s also a pretty-sounding record – the saxophone and blast beats give the music a melodic twinge that never drags or repeats itself, allowing for multiple listens and for different things to focus on. The title track compels you to come closer, inviting you into a warm environment filled with soft lighting. However, when the sound abruptly changes, you are whisked into a dissonant soundscape that makes you want to crawl out of your skin. It’s familiar yet different at once, and that dissonance is what keeps you glued to the album. After all, once you’re fully dialed in, Love Exchange Failure is intimate, portraying an ugliness that is apparent once you get past its façade. It asks you to be in awe of what it is, showing you the deepest parts of itself – through the softer tones of the music – but also showing you just how ugly and dissonant it can get. The noir aesthetic I mentioned earlier becomes evident halfway through the album, on the track “Shelter.” As one of the shorter tracks on the album, it’s somber, with haunting whispers, muffled screaming, and what sounds like a bicycle bell punctuating a distant horror within the confines of the soundscape. The piano provides a sharp contrast to the sound, as if challenging you to follow it while everything else – the texture of the music, the haunting dissonance, that incessant bell – swirls around you.
The more I listened, the more invested I became, and I began to notice the little touches that made it so interesting to me. There are moments before the heavier aspects of the music kick in where you can hear muffled voices, as if you were pressing your ear against the wall. There is also the ending to “Uncanny Delusions,” which sounds like the scene of art film gone rogue. Towards the end, you hear this sultry melody and what sounds like a torch singer – Edith Piaf, maybe? – along with a woman screaming about how much she enjoys being hit. It’s both surprising and terrifying, as if you walked past one of your neighbors while coming home and you hear this seemingly abused woman being beaten again for no apparent reason other than she enjoys it. It’s weird, but that’s the beauty of White Ward.