As massive as the riffs were on Ancestors’ 2008 Tee Pee Records debut, Neptune with Fire (originally also the band’s demo), their largesse pales in comparison to the distance of stylistic ground the band has covered since. The progression away from that album’s two-song Sleep-derived sprawl was almost immediate on 2009’s Of Sound Mind (review here) – titled as if to indicate the L.A.-based act’s own consciousness of what they were doing – and last year’s Invisible White EP (review here) was even more of a departure from what seemed like a stated course of gleefully mining and putting stoner rock riffing to epic, extended use. You could almost hear the one-song album on its way. Ancestors might still get there, but if they do, it’ll be in a much different form. The full-length follow-up to the pattern of influence Invisible White established is In Dreams and Time (also Tee Pee), which confirms over its far-ranging 66 minutes emotional weight as the center of the band’s songwriting construction even as much as it utilizes thickened tones to blend in elements from earlier offerings. The really amazing thing about Ancestors is that we’re talking about a four-year span of time that all these shifts have taken place. Of course the first record was put to tape well before it came out, but even so, if not for the breadth it covers, In Dreams and Time would feel like a debut in itself for how much of a beginning it seems to be for the band.
The inclusions of Moog and modular synth by Matt Barks, and the piano and organ of Jason Watkins (who also contributes vocals), are pivotal to the sound of In Dreams and Time almost immediately, rivaling if not surpassing Justin Maranga’s guitars at times. Opener “Whispers” begins with heavy crashes, but ultimately its nine minutes are more defined by the interplay of melody and the “extras” than the meat of the riffs themselves. King Crimson-esque oohs and aahs run through the middle, and it’s not until its final movement that heaviness in the traditional sense enters into it, the drums of Jamie Miller (also of Night Horse and since replaced by Daniel Pouliot) signaling a faster finish to which Nick Long adds the first in a series of engaging bass runs while Maranga’s lead vocals take on a Steve Von Till-esque gruffness. The Neurosis influence isn’t a central focus – that is, Ancestors aren’t making post-metal – but it’s there all the same. The song slows at its end and leads into In Dreams and Time’s shortest cut, “The Last Return,” which still surpasses six minutes and shows more of the melancholic side of Ancestors’ approach that really came to the fore on Invisible White. This is progression without pretense, and I’d say “The Last Return” is indulgent for the wash of guitar that seems to consume its dramatic male/female vocal interplay, but it also works really well. Miller comes in after two verse/chorus tradeoffs and a landmark piano solo from Watkins that’s well-suited to the mood of the track, adding a bit of pulse to the last two minutes alongside distorted guitars and the still-prevalent piano.
With a cut like “The Last Return,” already I’m thinking In Dreams and Time must have been a nightmare to mix. Not only is there a wide variety of elements at play, but they’re balanced just so to allow for the album to be engrossing and almost overwhelming, but still accessible and appreciable. Amplifier hum fades out even as synth winds begin to blow and underscore the guitar-driven beginning of side –A ender “Corryvreckan” and one of In Dreams and Time’s two tracks over 10 minutes. At 12:08, it’s not as grand, or as long, as the album closer “First Light” — which clocks a fully-used 19:19 – but it’s nonetheless a landmark for Ancestors thus far. Long offers a standout performance on bass and seems to loom above and separate from Miller’s tom fills during the verse, and a chorus of well-arranged semi-melodic and harsher shouts adds doomed sensibility to what is still markedly atmospheric. Organ features heavily throughout the “Corryvreckan”’s build – the song named either for a whirlpool in Scotland or for the whiskey that takes its moniker from same – but the guitar leads in the second half classily offer additional melody to what the keys contribute. A subdued break nine minutes in reminds of a fuller-sounding Crippled Black Phoenix, but the tension pays off with about a minute and a half to go, the riff changing up to a more adrenaline-inducing progression and the rest of Ancestors getting in line behind, except perhaps Long, the separation of whose bass seems to sit it in a class entirely its own. The tone there is punchier than anything else, so it stands out even more, but if he’s left the task of carrying the song to its conclusion, he seems up to it.
Side B, such as it is (if they were to put the album out on vinyl, they’d have to either cut tracks or make it a double, as I’m fairly certain a 12” LP won’t hold a 66 minute album – nonetheless, that’s how the songs are structured), is longer. “On the Wind” and “Running in Circles” both top nine and a half minutes, and “First Light” nearly reaches 20, whereas on the first three tracks, “The Last Return” was shorter and that set up even more of a contrast with the lush patience of “Corryvreckan.” Ancestors offset the extra length by honing in on sonic diversity and continuing to expand the sonic palette they’ve already established. “On the Wind” gets underway with Watkins’ piano while guitar swells and fades behind, and the ambience becomes the point of build that acts as the center of the song as Miller thuds his way in on the toms and guitars fade in to introduce the verse after about two and a half minutes. Like with “Corryvreckan,” “On the Wind” lets its vocals become a point of focus – something I don’t think Ancestors had the confidence to do before Invisible White – but on the later track, they’re more melodic and more memorable, still giving way to the sub-Neurosis shouts, but nailed in the mix so that neither the guitar nor piano lines feel sacrificed. In terms of sheer craft, “On the Wind” might be the most developed song on In Dreams and Time, with a guitar solo near the halfway point setting up bold competition to come from Hammond organ even as Long’s bass once more holds down the initial groove that started it all. It’s warm, it’s professional and it’s progressive, and they bring back the chorus at the end of an extended jam – just instrumentally – and it serves as a firm reminder of just how far they’ve come and how far they’re brought listeners along with them.
“Running in Circles,” then, should be the dip. It’s where the dip should be, anyway. You’ve got the huge closer still to come and you’re right in the middle of side B, so if you’ve got a dip, that’s where you’d put it. Ancestors don’t have a dip, though, in terms of quality. While “Running in Circles” brings down the mood somewhat in its beginning to recall some of the song “Invisible White”’s depressive bent, the waltzing intro opens wide as Miller switches to his hi-hat into a verse that’s among the brightest moments In Dreams and Time has to offer. Maranga takes the lead on guitar in the song’s first half, and at about four minutes in, enter a break driven more by Long and Miller – organ ringing out the whole time in the background – that gradually forms the basis for a chugging start-stop riff that’s all the more satisfying when the chorus returns. Sirens show up in the background, which can catch you off guard on the first listen, but the lumbering riff that caps “Running in Circles,” even offset by the melody in the organ and synth, is as big as anything from any point in Ancestors’ career to date, and they show a clear love of the heavy ending the song with amp noise before the end credits start to roll by with the bouncing intro to “First Light.” The song may – and I’d argue does – sound conclusory, but it’s worth noting that it also takes up nearly a third of In Dreams and Time on its own, so the album is far from over. That feel both helps and hinders in the end in the expectations it sets up, but if Ancestors have proven anything over their three albums, it’s that expectation weighs light among their concerns. The guitar bounce departs and a long, atmospheric instrumental section takes hold, the organs and synth featuring heavily not quite in a wash, but definitely a psychedelic melody splurge, and it’s not until after the nine-minute mark that vocals return to start a verse that begins with delivering the album’s title line, “Our city stands in dreams in time” in Floydian splendor over Hammond and a simple, sleepy-but-crisp drum beat.
In its totality, “First Light” is cinematic – Terry Gilliam in dreamy slow motion, figure – but as that verse leads to the album’s finest guitar solo, all the prog indulgence, all the patience finds total justification in that one lead. There’s something new wave about the movement that ensues – I can’t quite put my finger on it, which is all the more fun – and layers of guitar continue to soar to the song and the album’s apex, perhaps a bit understated by the production, which keeps a hefty focus on the low-end throughout, but still effective. After 15 minutes have passed, In Dreams and Time introduces the final section of “First Light,” a verse that’s almost poppy and reminiscent of the song’s initial bounce but not replicating it once more showing consciousness on the band’s part of the distance they’ve covered on their journey. Ancestors come to a head with a surprise inclusion of strings at the end as a big rock finish climaxes underneath, and In Dreams and Time finds appropriate end in the weight of the silence that follows their cold dropoff. There will always be a subset of those who’ve been aware of Ancestors since their beginning who decry the band’s work afterward. Nature of the beast for an act who seemed so aligned to a particular style but whose first record ultimately did little to represent what they wanted to accomplish musically. Nonetheless, those people will always be there. As well, there will be those who manage to appreciate the boldness that continually drives Ancestors’ output, and I can’t help but think as I listen to In Dreams and Time that those are the ones who most win out.
Don’t get me wrong, I dug Neptune with Fire a lot when it came out and still do, but it’s way more exciting to think about where the band might go after Invisible White and In Dreams and Time than it is to mourn the stoner riffs that could’ve been and still come from plenty of other bands. For their part, Ancestors will be Ancestors, and their unwillingness to compromise on that point has proven to be one of their greatest strengths thus far into their career. Just like everything else they’ve done up to this point, In Dreams and Time redefines what being Ancestors means. It is their most confident, most studied and clearest outing, and while that’s true, it also shows potential for growth going forward, for melodic fullness to come and for development of the songwriting prowess and performance interplay already on impressive display here. Maybe I’m just one of those people who’s going to dig Ancestors wherever they go stylistically. I’m alright with that, because as much as Neptune with Fire caught the attention and Of Sound Mind seemed murkier in its expansion, Ancestors have since shown that they’re the masters of their own evolutionary path, and so far, trusting in that has paid off.
Tags: Ancestors, California, Los Angeles, Tee Pee Records