Album Review: Geist and the Sacred Ensemble — “Waning Hymns”

Geist and the Sacred Ensemble are a tough band to pigeonhole.  To even call them a band seems like an oversimplification, when they’re more of a collective or organization, combining music, aesthetic and ideology seamlessly into one amoeba-like unit.  Take one part Swans, one part Inter Arma, one part Ulver and one part Crass and you might come close to what Waning Hymns sounds like.  Then again, maybe not.  It’s an album that begs a deeper dive than just seeing what box it can be shoved into, a whole greater than just the sum of its influences.

Equally meditative and jarring, Geist’s apocalyptic blend of ambient, doom infused transcendental folk is further explored on Waning Hymns, keeping the diverse instrumentation, fluid dynamics and unconventional compositions with which the Pacific Northwest outfit is known for characterizing their sound.  Deep soundscapes are established through droning vocals, bowed bass, soft percussion, woodwinds and acoustic guitars, lulling the listener into a trance until sudden explosions of distortion, pounding drums and barked spoken word jar awake a primal feeling of disquiet.  Most of this album takes an eerie texture, never quiet feeling melodic or graceful, even when guitar and clarinet are laying down a repeating melody.  There’s always something in the background lending a bit of tension and movement that the compositions desperately need.  With only four tracks on the album, these songs are meant to go on for a long time, but they never feel boring.  Texturally, there is a lot of space, but in that space each member takes turns adding a wide variety of dynamics that keep the songs feeling fresh and interesting.  A huge piece of that sonic puzzle are the vocals of M. Sauder, whose droning chants and impassioned cries spell out Geist’s mission statement.  “Waning Hymns is a study of Western consumer culture, attention spans, and empathy. This collection of ritualistic music asks us to redefine our self-worth…these Hymns are a ceremonial call; a reminder that we alone have the power to define ourselves,” says the band.

Waning Hymns is a balancing act of dynamics.  “Doom folk” is the genre most associated with the band, and they do a good job of letting each aspect speak for itself and knowing when to blend the two to dramatic effect.  “Adviata” begins with a surprisingly heavy jump right into doom territory, with uneasy electric guitar ambience that collapses into thunderous drums, heavy distortion and Sauder’s trademark monotone howl.  It’s a track that’s both transcendental, rich with swirling textures and unsettling with the drums shaking the earth and Sauders loudly lamenting Western consumerism.  “Volition” similarly opens with an eerie repeated guitar pattern building into a climax marked by a reverb-soaked scream, but marks one of the band’s infrequent departures into truly melodic territory, closing with the guitars switching into hammering a haunting lead line over thick strumming and more reverb-drenched chants.  “Closed Eye” is the most meditative the band gets, with subtle chimes and gongs, billowing strings and gentle guitars weaving a six-minute instrumental atmospheric pilgrimage punctuated by unnerving clarinet wails.  All of this paves the way for “Century of the Self,” arguably the band’s manifesto, a fifteen-minute diatribe against diminishing empathy and self-centered consumerism.  It’s not all hopeless though.  Sauders’ shouted refrain at the transitional back half of the song is an inspiration and a call to action: “Because you are not a number, and we can outnumber the ones that issue the numbers.  Then we’ll become bigger than our problems.”

Geist and the Sacred Ensemble

Geist and the Sacred Ensemble have shared the stage with a diverse range of heavy hitters, from Oranssi Pazuzu to Insect Ark to Jackie-O-Motherfucker, on stages that have ranged from metal foundries to abandoned schools and churches.  It seems that, in the traditional Pacific Northwestern vein, it’s less important where one plays than what is played, although they seem to keep good company while playing.  Geist are on a mission to change minds and open hearts, and Waning Hymns does a great job of laying their ideology out on the line.  The passion they put into the music they make is at once apparent, and if you’re into the unconventional and open to being taken on a journey, then you should check this one out.

– Ian

­Waning Hymns will be available July 31 on Scry Recordings.  For more information on Geist and the Sacred Ensemble, visit their official website.

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