In my review of Cantus Figures Laurus last month, I half-jokingly noted that Sarah Davachi's creative arc seems unavoidably headed towards composing a full-on Mellotron-driven prog rock opus. While she has not quite reached that dubious culminating achievement yet, Antiphonals is arguably another significant step in that direction, as it is very Mellotron-centric and the vinyl release features a sticker comparing it to a prog album with everything removed except the keyboard parts. For the most part, however, the change in instrumentation did not inspire any particularly dramatic stylistic transformations, as Antiphonals mostly picks up right where Cantus, Descant left off, which is somewhere best described as "like a blurred, stretched, and deconstructed organ mass." In keeping with that theme, both an electric organ and a pipe organ are featured (along with plenty of other instruments), yet the resemblance to an organ mass is more spiritual than overt this time around. In more concrete terms, that means that Davachi's sound palette has broadened a bit from Cantus, but she is still very much focused on somberly meditative moods, glacial melodies, bleary drones, and subtle harmonic transformations.
As was previously the case with Cantus, Descant, Antiphonals' title plainly states the compositional theme of the album. The term is usually applied to liturgical or traditional choral music and roughly means that two choirs are singing different themes that interact with each other. While there are not any choirs here, the album‚Äôs overarching aesthetic seems to be sketchlike compositions in which Davachi brings together two simple motifs to rub up against one another in interesting ways. I say "sketchlike" because she does not seem particularly interested in crafting strong melodies or complete compositional arcs for most of these pieces, opting to instead zoom in closely on harmonies and textures that tend to come to an abrupt end when a piece has run its course. That said, the album does feature one (somewhat) fully formed and melodic centerpiece ("Gradual of Image") that combines minor key acoustic arpeggios, a quietly gorgeous organ melody, and fluttering, dreamy layers of Mellotron. That is Davachi's most "prog" moment and it executed beautifully. For me, however, the album‚Äôs zenith is the ghostly drone of "Magdalena," which sounds like a spectral brass ensemble conjuring slow motion waves of aching melancholy. It is a masterful slow burn, gradually revealing shifting patterns and warm harmonies. In fact, it may be one of the most perfect pieces that Davachi has composed to date, so the album's primary allure is "one killer drone piece and a very promising prog detour," but a couple of the remaining pieces are compelling as well. For example, "Border of Mind" initially sounds like a murky tape of a small string ensemble trying their damnedest to acoustically replicate Sunn O)))'s gnarled and blown-out drones, but it quickly dissolves into a hallucinatory coda of smeared flutes and uneasily dissonant harmonies. Elsewhere, "Rushes Recede" takes the opposite route, as bleary flute-like Mellotron drones gradually blossom into something resembling a sublime organ mass. For me, "Rushes Recede" feels like the third and final highlight of the album, yet fans who are more enamored with Davachi's recent indulgently minimal "ancient cathedral" direction will likely find Antiphonals to be a worthy successor to Cantus, Descant. While this is admittedly not my favorite side of her work, I can still very much appreciate the way she is slowing down and burrowing deeper, as though she is tenaciously peeling away layer after layer of craft to get to the pure essence of her vision.
Samples can be found here.