There’s a brief moment, amidst all the swirling sounds, keyboard collages and chiming guitars all, where the gentle rustle of the wind blowing leaves comes through your speakers, and only one word can describe it: bliss.
But, bliss best describes The Appleseed Cast’s magnum opus, Low Level Owl (volumes 1 and 2 – which we will from now after refer to as Owl 1 and Owl 2). Back in those college years, when I had not yet become half of the music aficionado that I am today. A friend and fellow musician turned me on to Owl 1. We went to the record store (TD’s CDs and LPs, for those of you Bloomingtonian residents), and there dug around until we found it.
“There’s a volume two?,” I asked. My friend Frank just nodded his head. “Even better than the first one,” he said.
It only took me another five to six years to test out that theory, but Frank may have been right. Regardless, the best way to experience Owl 1 and Owl 2 is to listen to them back to back – as they were intended.
The Appleseed Cast had been an “emo” band, one of the many similar sounding bands on the Deep Elm record label. Not that this was a band thing – Deep Elm at the time had a rich, talented roster of bands, and was well-known in indie circles. Still, the leap from The End of the Ring Wars to Low Level Owl: Volume I is drastic – and a great step in a new, fantastic direction.
From the opening notes of “The Waking of Pertelotte” though “View of a Burning City” and “View of a Burning City (reprise),” which end Owl 1 and begin Owl 2, respectively, and on until the last track of Owl 2, “Confession,” you are on a seamless aural ride.
Some might consider it a stretch, but really, Radiohead never did anything this good. The Appleseed Cast was labeled as “America’s closest thing to Radiohead” after these albums dropped in August and October of 2001, but the comparison is unjust in many ways. To me, these albums sound like what Roger Waters, David Gilmour, and the whole Pink Floyd gang would’ve made, had they grown up and came of age in the late ‘90’s. In terms of sheer depth, timbre, and feel, Low Level Owl has much more in common with Dark Side of the Moon than O.K. Computer.
In the land of post-rock (a label the Cast has again been pigeonholed into) and post-emo, these two records stand alone, on their own merits. There may be better bands, and better albums, in post-rock, underground indie rock, psychadelia, and instrumental rock, but the way these two albums flow together, and take the listener on an inner journey, can’t seem to possibly be topped, except maybe by Sigur Ros, and then… it’s a coin flip.
There are vocals on many of the tracks, but you may not know what they are exactly unless you sit down with the album booklet and read through them as you listen. That’s not a half-bad idea, either, if you want to know what’s being said, but it might be even better to just turn off the lights, lay back on your bed, or hell, even your living room floor, and just listen.
When “The Waking of Pertelotte” turns into “On Reflection,” you know you have arrived at a sweet musical experience. The snapping, echoing snare hits and the bubbly guitar arpeggios are like dessert. And that’s just the beginning.
The completely masterful soundscapes that this band create over the course of two albums could draw comparisons to Mogwai, Pelican, Sigur Ros, and Explosions in the Sky. What sets them apart is the way the albums fit together, song after song leading into the next experiment.
Small tracks like “A Tree for Trails” link up songs like “Convict” and “Signal” (both of which are among the best tracks on the albums, especially “Signal”). When “Sunset Drama King” repeats musical and lyrical melody lines other songs, it reminds you how pleasant this experience has been, and at well over an hour into the journey, it may be the first time you’re reminded of just how seamless these albums are.
Certain listeners may find the songs to be too repetitive, too samey for their tastes. While generally I like a lot of variety in my music, it really doesn’t stand out that much for me with Owl 1 and Owl 2. In fact, there are many, many peaks and valleys in the music presented here. Even though they do all sound of the same mood and the same mold, the listening experience in total is so unique and fresh-sounding as to not notice, or rather to be bothered by, the explicit continuity between songs and albums.
Even as the album winds down, with “The Argument” again recalling an earlier song, the tiredness of that track feels so natural as to seem, well, just plain right. It makes the perfect beginning of the end, just before “Reaction,” with feedback-laden guitars washing noise around the melodies of songs long since come and gone.
The brief moment of space – of no sound – just before “Reaction” immediately draws your attention to it. It literally breaks the hypnotic spell the album has put over your. The break announces the end, and brings with it another magnificent song, this one with the lyrics a little more upfront. It still matches the overall tone of the album, but almost sounds as if you’ve come out from a tunnel, or as if you had been listening underwater, and now your head has crested the surface, and your gasping for air.
Who knows and who cares if you have been drowning all this time. “Confession” begins its slow, winding drive towards home, towards the end, and you can here the drip of water in the sink, the sound of it hitting the beach, the gulls taking flight, the sounds of the strangeness of the real world creeping back in.
Do yourself a favor. Go to the local record store, buy Low Level Owl: Volume 1 and Low Level Owl: Volume 2. If you burn them on your iPod, that’s ok, but do yourself this one favor – promise yourself to listen to them, back to back, twice: once with headphones, and once without, with the volume turned up and the walls shaking. If you’re the type of personal who likes musical journeys, you won’t regret it.