Album Review: The Otolith, Folium Limina

The Otolith Folium Limina

There’s just so much happening. It’s like life. From the tolling bell, crow calls and subtle bass-led progression — almost dance — soon joined by a tense chugging guitar line, peppered ambient notes of who knows what, and emergent violin in the first two minutes of “Sing No Coda” to the ultra-melancholic wash in the end of closer “Dispirit,” with its weaving lines of rhythmic static, sad, slow strings, and noise on an eventual fade, yes, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The first lines of the Folium Limina arrive with Utah-ready puritanical severity behind them, vocalists Sarah Pendleton and Kim Cordray, both of whom also play violin, finding their way into and around harmony while they, guitarist/vocalist Levi Hanna, bassist/vocalist Matt Brotherton and drummer/percussionist Andy Patterson — who engineered, mixed and mastered the recording, as he will — begin to unfurl the bleak majesty that is the backdrop before which their debut album takes place.

The this-is-mostly-slow-but-all-urgent sensibility that persists throughout the six pieces/63 minutes and the outright elephantine tonal heft of their heaviest chapters, as well as basic elements like the vocal harmonies, violins, immersive post-metallic claustrophobia, longer-form songwriting, etc., are The Otolith‘s chief inheritances from SubRosa, and if the argument being made in Folium Limina is that the prior band had more to say — that they weren’t done when they were done — it’s one that prompts easy agreement with the songs making that point.

Pendleton (also of Asphodel Wine) steps into a lead vocalist role and Hanna swaps bass for guitar in the new outfit, and he and/or Brotherton are perhaps more prominent as male/harsh vocalists (pardon me if I don’t break out percentages) as demonstrated at the and-go!-surging-lurch beginning of “Andromeda’s Wing” and the sweeping midsection of the aforementioned “Dispirit,” which at 11:08 bookends Folium Limina with “Sing No Coda” (which opens with its longest track, thereby earning ever-coveted ‘immediate points,’ at 13:29; everything else is between nine and 10 minutes), but aesthetically, there’s little question that The Otolith are moving outward from what SubRosa became across their four full-lengths, even as they begin to lay claim to a path of their own apart from the songwriting contributions of Rebecca Vernon (now of The Keening), whose departure from SubRosa effectively ended the band, and fair enough.

Narrative, blessings and peace upon it, has its contextual role to play, but knowing SubRosa‘s work is not a barrier to engaging The Otolith in the slightest. That is, it’s not too late before you’ve begun to listen. Their songwriting happens in waves, with “Sing No Coda” establishing the movement-based methodology that persists through much of the outing and seems to bring each individual part to a certain place of ceremony, whether it’s the winding and pushing of “Andromeda’s Wing” or the offsetting of massive plod in the highlight-among-highlights “Ekpyrotic” (if you’re looking for a “Stones From the Sky” moment; it’s there), which seems to howl into an abyss of American expanse: “Great birds once human gather to drink in the high desert night” setting the stage for the culminating lyric “We are the light,” which even the growls in Latin that follow somehow don’t outdo for heft, general aural gorgeousness or listener consumption. It is the sound of porcelain created with care, crushed to powder, and remade, over and over.

The Latin phrase at the end of “Ekpyrotic,” ‘amor vincit omnia,’ translates as ‘love conquers all’ (‘truth’ is similarly exalted earlier in the track; again, fair enough) and that seems to be the core message of the album in general — unless you count the creativity of the snare in “Andromeda’s Wing” and the toms in “Dispirit” as their own kind of message in their signifying the attention paid to every note and measure of this work; the layer of whispers in the short break in “Hubris” before the next wave of volume brings the hook in its own time, and countless other examples of critical minutiae that help give Folium Limina such impossible but inevitable depth — but it serves especially well as a lead-in for “Hubris,” “Bone Dust” and “Dispirit,” which follow on the second half of the tracklist and play through a legible storyline of perseverance in the face of “hubris like smoke in your mane” and the reminder that, “Each of us holds a seed of power/That cannot be thieved.”

“Bone Dust” places this more directly in the context of preserving the US experiment as a multicultural democratic nation — mixed results, to-date, to say the least — against encroaching authoritarianism, both through its own battle cries amid the full-breadth tones that awaken from the subdued opening stretch of violin and soft bass and guitar, and through the soliloquy sampled from Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film, The Great Dictator, in which a leader clearly intended to be a nazi casts off repressing the populace in favor of encouraging freedom and democracy. It is strikingly, tragically relevant, presented over a chugging, purposefully repetitive riff and crash intended to give it space. Chaplin urges, “do not despair” since so long as men die, freedom will never perish, and pledges to fight for a new, better, more just world.

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It’s hard to know if it’s wishful thinking or mourning for the fact that our reality bears so little resemblance to that one, but “Disprit” gets final say. Made tense through ambience and strings initially, it conveys the exhaustion of good souls being steamrolled as it builds toward its eventual payoff — that tom part; yes — and hits into full volume at the 4:30 mark, though that burst is by no means as far as The Otolith are willing to push it. One more time before Folium Limina is done, the five-piece offer years’ worth of depth and hear-something-new fodder as textures of violin, the driving shove of the guitar, bass, drums, shouted vocals, whatever else is happening there in those troubled reaches, all coalesce around the singular idea of loss of cause through dismay, a kind of nod from within to the apocalypse-fatigue that may well cost the United States its political system — and to the detriment of everybody, there’s no fully-automated luxury gay space communism this time; it’s christian nationalism and radical capitalist exploitation for all; sure hope nobody beats your kid to death for being trans, but if they do, hey, thoughts and prayers, right? all part of white American god’s plan, like mass shootings! — raging for the next three minutes before subsiding into a humming drone, piano and violin, with the already-noted static and noise behind, outlasting like some vague notion of justice and rightness the existence of which, sadly, isn’t enough to make it real. This is a hard, mean, world. Among its few saving graces: records like this one that go through it with you.

The story of the album is unavoidably the shift from SubRosa to The Otolith, and it may be another record or two — touring, obviously, if that’s a thing that might happen — before The Otolith are more distinguished from the majority of its members’ prior group, but clearly part of what’s being accomplished here is to continue that creative growth as a unit and the aesthetic statement that made SubRosa‘s swansong, 2016’s For This We Fought the Battle of Ages (review here), a landmark for them as well as for post-metal across the board, while exploring new expressive avenues. They succeed in that, readily.

And that they’re doing that work at all is one of Folium Limina‘s greatest strengths as a debut album — it’s almost unfair to call it one; four-fifths of this band isn’t a new band — but it’s the clear sense of purpose, of creating meaning in a time when even the definition of what’s real around us has become a partisan void, when as a species we’re beaten by disease and dismay both and the only ones who seem to have any strength left are the villains, that ultimately positions it as such a thing of beauty. An idea planted in troubled, near-poisonous ground, that has blossomed into something sad but beautiful.

In the interest of complete disclosure, Folium Limina was issued first as an exclusive for Blues Funeral‘s PostWax vinyl subscription service, for which I do the liner notes and am (theoretically, if I ever get to send Jadd my Paypal) compensated. This review was written after discussions with the band, and if you have that version and have read those notes — first, thanks — and second, the story of the album there is somewhat different than here. I’ll put that up to living with Folium Limina longer, hearing it differently, and the fact that listening to great records isn’t a thing that happens and then you put them away; they’re art you experience, and your impressions and an album’s realizations can both change with time and context. In any case, I’m not just repeating the liner notes here because that was their tale to tell about the songs and this is mine — on a procedural level, no one else is approving drafts of a review before it’s published, as evidenced by all the likely typos, half-thoughts and grammatical errors — even if I’m the wordy bastard whose name is on both. Still, compelled to mention it by some in-the-end-meaningless notion of integrity, so it’s been mentioned now. Diligence done.

Given that, and given that The Otolith took on the challenge of writing an album that’s (at least in part) about being absolutely battered by the world around you while waking up to face another day of it and still managed to make it sound not like a drag is emblematic of the roots they’re expanding from and the expansion itself; the effort and the work, then and now. Folium Limina is by no means an easy listen, but these are not easy times, and while it feels like the very gravity of the planet is working to rip the air out of your lungs and take your breath from you, let it be art for salvation. Sing no coda. This is no end.

The Otolith, Folium Limina (2022)

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