Artist: The Western Den
Title: Battle Hymns
Release Date: 05/10/13
Reviewer: Josh Hamm
- For the Sake of Seeking
- Desert Ground
- The Minister
- First Light
The Western Den is one of my favourite discoveries of 2013. They may not have a long established discography, but from the moment I was finished listening to their EP, Battle Hymns, I was sold.
This trio has forged some incredible songs of melody and melancholy that reach out and grab hold of you as you listen. Featuring beautiful vocal harmonies from all three members: Chris West, Deni Hlavinka, and Alec Alabardo, as well as great cello and violin parts to round out their piano and guitar based sound, there’s really not much to find at fault here. If you enjoy folk and ambient music, with a touch indie influence, then you’ll love this.
Battle Hymns is not a very cheerful album, but it brings to mind a similar release from last year, Through the Deep, Dark Valley by The Oh Hellos. Both albums deal with sorrow and despair at times, yet each is wondrously beautiful.
The lyrics are vague stories – told in bits and pieces so that we never have a full picture, but we never need to know more than we’re given. I especially enjoy the imagery of “Desert Ground,” which to the best of my knowledge chronicles the fatal crash of a hot air balloon in Egypt. The final verse is chilling: “And lay there, a mother, her daughter and son, /The only three to last the fall, and tell of what’d been done. /How the Desert rules with an iron fist and nay believes in truth or grace, /And once bound by the Desert sound, ne’er we will escape.” It’s my favourite song for how they craft a simple story out of the event, and how the chorus reels you in and never lets you go;” “Come on down to the desert ground” /The Lord of sand, he calls out. /Come on down to the desert ground. /Down to the desert ground, I come down.” Notice how the repetition within the chorus cements the inevitability, the pull of the desert itself.
Another highlight is “The Minister.” A ballad that conveys heartbreaking sadness. It follows the conceit of “What can make the minister fall?” Featuring lines like “You are far too old, /To tread the waters of a wretched soul,” it’s difficult not to feel sympathy for this minister. The last minute or so builds, strings and guitar weaving an intense atmosphere, finishing with the same line again, “What can make the minister fall?” But this time we are left in the dark as to whether or not it truly wishes to know the answer. The song can work either as a questing of a particular character; his capabilities and potential downfall, or it could be a musing of the trials and tribulations of ministers in general, and the need for them to find peace and hang on, rather than become one of many fallen by the wayside, “For there’s a long and painful road, /Crowded with the bodies we’ve all known.”
It closes out with “First Light,” which is literally a song about the darkness before the dawn. It feels weighty and important, a tale of woe and darkness which befell some land: ” We mourn our morning’s loss and alter now our gaze, /For we cannot see the garden’s glow, /Nor the night between our days, /Hear our desirous hearts calling out in pain, /To rid ourselves of darkened homes and seek the morn again.” But the hope springs forth eternal, as it ends a cappella on this note: “The morn came down and fought to promise brighter days, /Though the dark, it stayed a little while, /The morn, it soon became.” The same subject matter, in the hands of a lesser band, could have come across as forced or cliché, but the flow of the imagery and themes of hope in the darkness resonates strongly within the song.
Overall: The songs on Battle Hymns are the type of music that makes one’s soul ache with both sorrow and joy. Let it wash over you and soak in the blend of calming ambient soundscapes and compelling folk harmonies and narratives. The Western Den is one to watch out for.
RIYL: The Oh Hellos, The Milk Carton Kids, Eine Blume, Future of Forestry, Sam Billen, Bon Iver
Buy the album: Bandcamp (Name Your Price)