In the past, I have favorably compared John Hannon's shapeshifting post-industrial collage project to This Heat, but this latest release leaves that signpost far behind and heads in a darker and more idiosyncratic direction. Bolstered by a new group of collaborators, Hannon's latest salvo more closely resembles an avant-garde string quartet soundtracking a tense Eastern European thriller. I have some mixed feelings about that change of direction, as the album's sustained fever pitch of dramatic intensity can be a bit exhausting. That said, Hannon's vision remains a bracingly vivid and visceral one and the new members inject some wonderfully unusual and inspired touches into the ever-changing Liberez aesthetic.
For this latest incarnation of Liberez, Hannon is joined by Matthew Reay, Sylvia Maria Saunder, and I√±igo Ugarteburu, all of whom were previously unknown to me, though I have since seen the latter described as a "virtuoso guitarist."I suspect Ugarteburu must be virtuosic at some other stringed instruments as well, as guitars do not play a particularly prominent role on this album.Rather, Way Through Vulnerability is a heaving maelstrom of tense violins, violently churning strings, and brutally pounded toms.The musicianship of the participants feels uncharacteristically relevant this time around though, as many of these nine pieces feel more like the work of an actual band than they do the masterful studio collages of years past.I could definitely see this version of Liberez being a powerful live act.If I were to glibly describe the new ensemble's aesthetic, I would probably say something like "Liberez may have left their This Heat influence in the rear-view mirror, but the new road they are on seems to be headed straight towards Godspeed You! Black Emperor city!"While typing that rightfully made me wince and hate myself, there is definitely some truth to such an assessment, though Hannon and company happily made a sharp detour into more ragged and rustic territory before they became fully immersed in melancholy cinematic grandeur and mannered artiness.In fact, Way Through Vulnerability feels like it was conceived by a rural commune of polyglot revolutionaries with a bent for traditional European folk music.
As intense and vital as the foursome's fiery vision can be, however, the new dynamic highlights some significant cracks in the Liberez aesthetic: Hannon has breached the blurry line that separates soundscapes/sound collages from songs and his compositional gifts are not quite on the same level as his textural brilliance and production intuition.That said, the album's bookends are quite good, particularly the opening "Celophane Window."In fact, it is kind of a masterpiece of coiled tension, as a hushed male voice cryptically delivers a monologue in a foreign language (Hungarian?) over a simmering bed of understated hand percussion and strangled, stuttering strings.The following "M'aidez" opens with another enigmatic spoken-word passage (presumably from Saunder and possibly in Russian), but soon erupts into an apocalyptic crescendo of crashing cymbals, pummeling toms, guitar noise, and tormented minor key string melodies.For better or worse, that is essentially the template for the entire album: atmospheric interludes of slow-building tension followed by episodes of volcanic ferocity that are akin to being curb-stomped by a disturbingly violent and cello-wielding Slavic folk ensemble.That certainly has its appeal, but the dark intensity of Way Through Vulnerability quickly starts to feel a bit one-dimensional and yields diminishing returns after a few songs.While there are certainly some beautiful pieces to be found, like the sensuously undulating and Flamenco-tinged "Here is the Proof," they feel like rare oases in album that is in a near-permanent state of boiling over.
That said, I genuinely love a lot of the details on Way Through Vulnerability, even if the overall arc of unrelenting drama and unresolved tension is a bit much for me.I especially enjoyed the newly added clapping rhythms and Hannon's continued genius for strangled and sharp stabs of feedback and bowed strings.I am also quite fond of the overarching vision, particularly when compared to the "hallucinatory radio transmission" aesthetic of 2013's stellar Sane Men Surround: this album is a viscerally, vibrantly "real" eruption of wood, steel, passion, and anguish undiluted by artifice.It is very easy to picture a room full of broken strings, splintered bows, and blood-splattered violins left in the wake of these sessions.The only real issue preventing this album from being an unambiguous leap forward rather than a compelling (if difficult) mixed success is one of balance: Hannon's dark clouds only part to let in some light, beauty, and tenderness on the closing title piece.Some more glimpses of that would have brought some welcome contrast and additional depth to the album.Without it, Way Through Vulnerability is far more polemic than poetry.Such raw elemental power certainly makes a strong impression, but it is not quite enough to make this Liberez's strongest album.