The Ascension of The Angelus

A drone oscillates into life; quivering and incandescent, maybe an organ of some description? The tone shimmers for a bit, bells are intoned in the distance. The certain urgency of ceremony. Voices enter, benedictine harmonies sounding with not a small amount of friction and tension between the singers. A creeping dread takes hold as one cries the words“All is well,” followed by a scraping dissonance of voice doubling the line. Cymbals rise to meet an eerie whine issued forth from a place lonely and forboding.

Steeped in the Southern Gothic tradition, and combining the bombast of post-rock, the tenor of Appalachian folk, and vernacular of gospel song-craft, The Angelus stands apart and unique among its peers in the North Texas music scene. With its new album On A Dark And Barren Land, the band has constructed a narrative of loss and redemption balanced on the edge of the metaphysical and nakedly emotional. This is the sound of our cancer year, our decay of self and spirit, and ultimately, the sound of our ascension beyond the struggle of human experience.

Built around the core duo of Emil Rapstine and Justin Evans, The Angelus has spent the better part of six years working toward this album, often in a regularly-fluctuating group of backing musicians. It is to their credit that their sound has maintained consistency and been focused, even if out of necessity, owing to the group dynamic.

Rapstine: “The songs have always been really important to me and Justin. We’ve released one EP in six years, all this stuff has happened in our lives that kept pushing the band to the side. It’s kind of miraculous in a way. Justin and I started together and that we’re finally getting this record out ... a lot of people would have just done something else.”

The uncommon chemistry between the two is particularly evident in the vocal harmonies they create. An amalgamation of pentatonic, eastern-tinged melodies slide into place alongside ordinarily staid, evangelistic harmonies creating an incredibly rich sonic framework for Rapstine’s sturm und drang lyricism. Recent San Francisco transplant Ryan Wasterlain fits neatly as the group’s new bassist. His solo project, Summer of Glaciers, shares a mutual aural ideology with The Angelus.

Rapstine: “I really love the structuring and layering he does in Summer of Glaciers, I think it shares a little bit of common space with what we do, and it hopefully will lend itself to our new stuff.”

While the band claims Land was not written with a unifying concept in mind, it’s difficult for my ears to hear anything other than a deftly realized song cycle rooted in the grieving process. Whether by accident or design, the album is also structured in an operatic manner. To be clear, we’re not talking Tommy or Operation: Mindcrime. Progressively theatrical, the opening triptych of songs “All Is Well,” “Latin I” and “Turned To Stone” form an overture, fading from one track to the next, and providing a thematic backbone for the record. An emotional arc in miniature, these songs are the Rosetta stone to understanding the intentions of Rapstine and company. Uncertainty and dread give way to anxiety and rage, culminating a release of tension that reassures only slightly before an ambiguous resolution.

Stemming from his Catholic upbringing, Rapstine’s lyrics are full of phraseology biblical both in reference as well as scope. In “Gone Country,” he uses the story of Abraham’s sacrifice as a metaphor for human loss. Lyrics such as “With an ear to the ground/it will come without a sound/the bells ring, the birds sing, it won’t be long now/so sing like a lark/into that dark and empty heart/there’s no one to hear you any how,” showcase the sinister creep of fatalism inherent in these songs, almost a devil on your shoulder whispering in your ear. Elemental language and references to transubstantiation, both as a physical metaphor and as an emotional transformation play a significant role as well. In “Turned To Stone,” the refrain pronounces “As we wither we turn to stone,” inferring that though our earthly vessel may perish, our souls remain immortal in hearts and memories.

The instrumentation built around the songs reinforces these themes. Evans’ restrained percussion and the propulsive, post-punk bass lines add distinctive color and shape to what could otherwise easily pass for Burzum lyrics. Piano and strings are strategically placed throughout, lending an almost regal feel to the proceedings.

Make no mistake, The Angelus is assuredly a rock band, and are fully capable of summoning a clamorous wall of guitars when necessary. But in a song such as “Let Me Be Gone,” the band wisely chooses to step back a bit in order to create a spare and stark canvas to provide a stage for the heart-rending vocal interplay. It’s in this song that we get another taste of operatic engineering, as the listener is introduced to an aching minor-key melody that returns later in a recognizable, yet altogether different context.

“Let Me Be Gone” stands as the centerpiece of the record – both the most emotionally devastating and tragically beautiful. The pleading refrain, “release me/of my body/let me be gone” illustrates Rapstine’s grasp of the sublime. Who has never pined for escape — from sickness, from sadness, from yourself?

The album concludes with “Sudden Burst Of Hope,” a flat-out triumphant and joyous affair. Echoing the introductory drone, we’re instead shown the converse path. Sweeping and ornate in its arrangement, it concludes the narrative with, if not exactly a happy ending, at least a resolution of having survived the worst and come out the other side. Interestingly, “Hope” has a singular status among the other songs present.

Rapstine: “(‘Hope’) ... was one of the first songs I wrote with The Angelus in mind. I’m glad that we finally got a recording. Some of the songs are really old, and some are comparatively new. Hopefully they don’t sound like two different bands.”

The band looked to longtime supporters and local scene promoters/advocates Michael Briggs and Brent Frishman of Gutterth Records to help with the release of the album.

Briggs: “We've been wanting to release this record for years now. We love The Angelus and are very proud to be able to work with them.”

Wasterlain: “I think their enthusiasm and the way they help the Denton scene is awesome ... in other cities, you don’t see that. To see those guys really try to champion the stuff they enjoy and Denton, it’s hard not to want to be associated with them.”

Evans: “They’re just good friends to have, and they’ve supported us since the beginning. It’s good to have them on our side.”

On A Dark And Barren Land stands as a powerful statement of purpose, confident and sophisticated well beyond what any ‘local’ band has any right to claim. To not be affected by their music is surely the sign of a heartless cur, or at the very least, terrible taste.

Gutterth Live presents the Angelus’ record release show with special guests Sans Soleil, Diamond Age, and Summer of Glaciers at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios on Saturday, October 8th.

On A Dark And Barren Land is available here through Gutterth Records

-David Willerton