Album Review: The Keening, Little Bird

The Keening Little Bird

It’s been nearly half a decade, but I’m not sure I’m completely over SubRosa breaking up yet. That pioneering post-metallic Salt Lake City outfit, fronted by Rebecca Vernon who founded The Keening after as a solo-project, released their final LP in 2016’s For This We Fought the Battle of Ages (review here), which was encompassing with a clarity of vision and purpose that pushed even further into the atmospheric textures wrought across 2013’s More Constant Than the Gods (review here), defining a sound that could be dead-minimal or unspeakably heavy, was undeniably Americana, and carried emotional presence and outward purpose in its lyrics and delivery across the board. They announced they were done in 2019. I may never get over it. But I kind of understand a bit more. The Keening‘s debut album, the six-song/51-minute Little Bird — on Relapse — puts some distance between Vernon and a doom underground it’s easy to imagine one might’ve been burnt out on if these were the songs looking to be expressed and one felt obligated to a specific tonal assault.

The other four former members of SubRosa have continued on with The Otolith — their debut album, Folium Limina (review here), surfaced last year via Blues Funeral — and begun a new progression off of some of their former outfit’s heavier aspects. If one wants to relate The Keening to SubRosa — as apparently (this) one does — then Vernon is drawing more from the melancholia and the curtain of ambient sadness of that band’s style, and with a modus that’s still very much hers, offering them recontextualized through varying arrangements of acoustic guitar as on the opener “Autumn,” goth church organ on “Eden,” strings and piano throughout, wisps of violin coming and going, and layers of voices alongside Vernon, who worked with producer Billy Anderson (SleepNeurosis, Acid King, etc.) and Nathan Carson (drummer for Witch Mountain and now the live incarnation of The Keening; also founder of Nanotear Booking) on the recording in Dec. 2020, following the project’s instrumental piano debut earlier that year on Blues Funeral‘s Women of Doom (review here).

So The Keening isn’t interested in being SubRosa, clearly. What takes shape gradually over the course of Little Bird has more in common with SubRosa‘s Subdued: Live at Roadburn 2016 (review here) semi-acoustic reworkings of their material, but is unmistakably heavier in stretches of “Autumn,” “Eden,” the penultimate “The Hunter II” and in the culmination of extended closer “The Truth” — it’s 17:30, but the almost operatic crescendo is voice as much as instrument (also voice-as-instrument) as part of a wash with guitar, bass, drums, strings, maybe some horns, I don’t even know, circa 13 minutes, and it makes its way out gradually there with room for birdsong and a kinda-sorta-secret track of what might be a harp but was definitely made with elven magic in any case — while remaining true to the structural patterns of Vernon‘s craft, poetic in the lyrics and in the instrumental progressions alike, and evocative of doom in some of its tempos certainly, but so much more intent on texture than impact.

The space in the mix, where it isn’t purposefully left open, is filled with mournful melodies and Vernon‘s voice aligning itself with Appalachian folk as well as modern post-heavy with just that ever-present undercurrent of spit-punk, dynamic arrangements and a style that has all the more forward potential for its malleability, but that doesn’t pull pieces of itself in and out for no reason. That church organ on “Eden” and the heavier roll that ensues as Vernon leads the chorus with the repeated line “Eden is receding” before it drops to keys ahead of the three-minute mark, specifically goth as the strings return and the song realigns for its big push — it would be as weighted as The Keening get but for “The Hunter II” mirroring on side B — but the harmonies after four minutes are even more affecting, and they carry to the end of that movement before a meditation of piano and quietest voice cap the song.

the keening (Photo by Angela H. Brown)

But just as one example drawn from the six inclusions, “Eden” is woven. It’s not haphazard or forced in its changes, and even its last shift to the soft ending is made gently, with silence as a place gone to and returned from. With the flowing violins and echoing layers of vocals, to call Little Bird graceful feels superfluous, but it is anyhow, and no less so as the title-track sweeps through a miniature version of its longer build before resetting in a wistful piano piece for which I’d love to see a lyric sheet, and making its way into a wash that’s preface to “The Truth” (which I guess is side C of the vinyl, or left off it), a kind of centerpiece at nine minutes, but more intimate than sprawling, despite that blossom at the finish.

This hint-at-what’s-coming modus applies to “The Hunter I” and “The Hunter II” as well, with the former flashing an edge of distortion in its early choruses while holding back its own payoff to a kind of droning nod before transitioning into “The Hunter II” with a tension of electric guitar that gives over to soothing folkish Mellotron (or -ish sounds) for an initially drumless two minutes, reimagining ’60s crossover folk until about three and a half minutes into the total of just less than five, Little Bird gets its “Stones From the Sky” moment of dense riffing, complemented by violin, layered in vocals, Vernon returning with the line, “I can’t wait until I die so I won’t see you again,” repeated. Richly progressive folk-informed heavy post-rock and a sick burn to boot. That ending is a surprise, and not the first, but its push leaves little room for argument, and by the time you’re there in listening, you’re long since either on board for the go or not. At that point, Vernon can do basically whatever she wants.

Enter “The Truth.” Beginning with standalone piano, “The Truth” unfurls its troubled landscape in its own time, and keeps a chorus based around, “So I ask you baby/Did the truth set you free?” (with changes in who’s being freed), at its core for this first movement before growing quiet at about five minutes and setting forth on its outbound path through the apex and into a staring-at-the-mountains silence. Perhaps a great asset for The Keening and Vernon as she moves forward with the band will be how pointedly heavy metal Little Bird isn’t, how genuinely moving it is, and how the album might appeal to listeners beyond the heavy underground’s subculture. But that’s a concern beyond the album itself, which repositions Vernon on new ground to explore while retaining the strength of songwriting and performance that made this project so anticipated in the first place.

The Keening, Little Bird (2023)

The Keening, “Little Bird” official video

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The Keening’s

Relapse Records website

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