The title of Gabriel Saloman’s second album could not be a more apt way to describe its musical contents. In rather basic terms, Soldier’s Requiem is an album that does what it says on the tin: it’s a sprawling, varied, often epic, yet emotionally resonant and heartfelt album that deals intimately with the effects and after-effects of war on an individual soldier. It’s not surprising to learn that the album was created in conjunction with a theatre and dance production entitled war.requiem, following on in the footsteps of its predecessor, Adhere, which also soundtracked a dance performance.
Saloman is perhaps best-known as a former half of seminal noise duo Yellow Swans, whose criss-crossing of harsh drone and freaked-out psychedelia induced a barrage of critical acclaim back in the early 2000s. Where his former acolyte Pete Swanson has taken the underlying rhythmic thrust that lay dormant in Yellow Swans’ music and transmogrified into brittle dancefloor-orientated post-techno, Saloman has a more considered approach to his previous incarnation’s “body music”, using rhythm and texture to explore the political, social and moral foundations that underpin the human condition. Each in their own way is giving fresh life to Yellow Swans’ remarkable legacy, breaking down the barriers between pure sound and the context that gives it form. In Saloman’s case, this translates itself via oblique narratives that reflect, on Soldier’s Requiem, on the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder.
There are those who have been quick to point out similarities between Soldier’s Requiem and the equally (if not more) politically-charged, but musically more basic and demonstrative post-rock of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, apparently mostly relying on the fact that Saloman is now based in Canada (despite the fact that Gabriel’s Vancouver home is hundreds of miles from Montreal), but, while the two masterpieces that form the heart of this album, the 18-minute opener ‘Mine Field’ and centrepiece ‘Boots On The Ground’ have a similar ebb and flow and a majestic musical build-up that might -just might- echo some of that band’s aesthetic, Gabriel Saloman is a much more nuanced and considered artist, and his political stance involves not invective, but subtle expression. He places the listener into a situation, by evoking through music the sensations of PTSD, and then allows the listener to build a mental canvas of those feelings, forcing us to patch into our own impressions, feelings and memories.
If Saloman forgoes any overt political statements on Soldier’s Requiem, that is not to say that it is some dry art piece. Saloman’s talent is in the way he deftly sidesteps the vaguely sloganeering stylisations of the likes of GY!BE, but never descends into soulless formalism. ‘Mine Field’ starts with a delicate, sustained piano motif, in a style reminiscent of something Michael Nyman or Lubomyr Melnyk might produce, except you always get the feeling this will lead to something else, something other. And so it proves, as Saloman adds mournful strings, guitar drones and deep vocal chants, building the piece into a piercing elegy to lost life and haunted memories. Heady stuff for an opening track, and it only gets more so as ‘Mine Field’ builds to an almost apocalyptic conclusion in a storm of buzzing guitars before segueing back into the repeated, melancholic piano progression, this time bolstered by crackling field recordings.
The appropriately-named ‘Marching Time’ rams home the militaristic themes on the album via three-and-a-half minutes of arrhythmic martial drumming, before ‘Boots On The Ground’ takes centre stage, building out of the final drum clatter with rain-sodden found sounds that are soon joined by a subdued, disjointed guitar progression. Here, Gabriel Saloman never stops shifting, the quiet of the early segment fusing with more clamorous drums and bursts of feedback-laden guitar mulch. The pace quickens and then slackens, forever disarming the listener as Saloman conjures up the sheer disorientation of PTSD through music alone, the complex narrative transcending the lack of lyrics or words with ease. The final segment of the piece is a roiling, rumbling mix of post-rock and noise, like a more lyrical take on the latter years of Yellow Swans (imagine Going Places with drums and chord changes, sort of).
Closer ‘Cold Haunt’ serves as a final, despairing slab of minor-key guitar drone, ramming home the sense of loss and disorientation that permeates Soldier’s Requiem from start to finish. The narrative Saloman unveils may be oblique, but its poignancy and potency are immediate and heady. We may lament that more American artists failed to stand up to Bush during the Iraq War, but if the musical analysis of that tragedy’s legacy will continue to be as powerful as Soldier’s Requiem, maybe there’s hope after all.