When I had stepped into Madison, Wisconsin over a year ago, before the move to Paris, there were enthusiastic talk around several bands that always elicited gasps. After having just left Chicago, how some bands slipped under my radar were beyond me. Collections of Colonies of Bees and All Tiny Creatures were those most spoken about, and easy to research and listen to. One, however, was elusive. Group of the Altos, who formed in 2006 and since became The Altos. Twelve members in the band, and rumor was that they would only play one song during a concert never to be heard from again. They wouldn’t record, or didn’t. Moreover, the band boasts such music masters that also enveloped Collections of Colonies of Bees and Volcano Choir; the latter a far less discussed project featuring one Justin Vernon. During SXSW 2011, at the SXWisconsin showcase, The Altos hooked people with songs that (since rumors have a way of playing with minds) I feared I wouldn’t hear again. The rest of the year was spent trying to catch them live, which was always a captivating experience to behold especially at the 2nd 1st Annual Rock County Folk Symposium. At the end of 2011, five years after forming, a LP finally emerged, recorded in Justin Vernon’s own April Base studio.
Five years. Three songs only. The shortest at 6 1/2 minutes, the longest surpassing 14 minutes. Long story short…it was well worth the wait. While many try to occupy the sonic landscape of long, prolonged instruments, the Altos nearly perfect it in creating their own musical geography that works with and without visuals, live and recorded. “Sing (for trouble)” starts the LP, a lone guitar, joined by its side with a foredoomed piano and mournful strings. A minute in and already they make it difficult, dare abandon, the captivating song. It only builds, and builds, with a tenacious tension that unbelievably reaches a warily satisfying sonic pinnacle…
One song, “never named,” is the flag bearer of the album; the song that draws you in when experienced live. The drum-circle pounding, persistent and punctuated by trumpets over a bed of slide guitar hypnotizes, soothes, then abandons itself. It’s as if being led by a trusted friend along the highway over promises long since spoken, only to find them desert you, wounded, miles from all but chorused chants and repetition. The intertwined brass and strings lead that reassurance, bursting between powerful and doleful on a calculated whim. “Him vs. hymn,” the fourteen minute opus is led primarily by piano, akin to those that rest upon creaky floorboards out West and foretell tales of woe or downtrodden debts. It’s as if taking Murder By Death’s “Those Who Left”‘s anxiety and applied it to the beautiful wavelengths of “Holy Lord, Shawshank Redemption is Such a Good Movie” off of Like the Exorcist, but More Breakdancing.
The entire LP, albeit three songs and under 30 minutes, perhaps may seem short, anticlimactic, and easily dismissed to the unaccustomed. Yet those who have had the chance, and those adventurous music travelers, will find The Altos’ only available record as one of the few albums that could demand its own film to be a soundtrack to its work. With Sean Williamson’s above video for “Sing (for trouble)”, one could only hope the Altos move beyond music and just create for art’s sake. (Let’s hope we don’t have to wait five years.)