- Ver Sacrum, Stirrings Still
(Self-released, cassette, digital download)
The year is 2068 — nearly two decades after the Turn. The cataclysm of unknown origin wiped out 97 percent of the world's population, its infrastructure and all traces of normal life. Survivors wait restlessly as the Omni, a newly emerged race of superintelligent humans with telekinetic abilities, work tirelessly to rebuild and unite the planet under their benevolent rule. Vermont's remaining inhabitants live difficult, tedious lives. The only respite from their bleak existence is Ver Sacrum, an Omni troubadour charged with delivering musical tidings to the huddled masses.
OK, so, none of that is true. I made it all up — and stole most of it from postapocalyptic tales such as The Road and Cloud Atlas. But Stirrings Still, the debut album from avant-garde singer-songwriter and carpenter Matthew Hastings, sounds and feels like a transmission from the end of the world.
The artist's raspy voice evokes melancholy, '90s grunge rockers, but his music is nebulous. He melds dissonant soundscapes with vaguely folk aesthetics — such as picked acoustic guitar. But the songlike elements of each track are cradled within a prolonged, foggy din. If he were an X-Men-type figure, he'd use his hands to strum and his enhanced mental capabilities to manipulate nearby detritus to create his atmospheric tones.
Hastings and coproducer Dan Davine recorded the album live with no overdubs, which adds to the feeling that it's unfolding in real time. You feel as if you're seated among the survivors of Armageddon in an abandoned, industrial facility, gray water dripping from rusty pipes as the traveling bard delivers his mystifying communications.
The lamentation begins with its titular track. In the first second, a sharp, distorted piano chord jars the listener as a sweeping sub-bass tone throbs below. Clangs, scrapes and rattling sounds precede the central hymnlike tune. Hastings' words fade in and out of coherence in a downhearted glaze.
"California" creeps in with a vibrating foundation of feedback and noise. High-pitched tones peak as guttural, saw-toothed chaos reigns. Once again, Hastings sings only after laying a foundation of pandemonium.
The third cut, "Basin and Range," initially pairs the artist's opposing modi operandi. A gravelly foundation buzzes as Hastings picks in a haunting, minor key. It sounds like an incantation.
"Broken Cup" concludes the dour journey with a slight boost in fervor from the preceding tracks' weary malaise. Layers of guitar chords — some glimmering, some serrated — converge in an ascendant, volcanic vortex.
As Ver Sacrum, Hastings becomes an oracular entity working within a vivid, dystopian framework. Stirrings Still is alien, bilious, engrossing — and masterfully constructed.
Stirrings Still is available at versacrum01.bandcamp.com. Catch Ver Sacrum on Saturday, February 24, at Autumn Records in Winooski.