self released, 2011, DD album, 33m 33s
Long songs (by the standards of popular music) are often casually referred to as epics: obviously the idea of an epic refers to more than duration, and although such commonplace coinages pretend to nothing more than a disposable shorthand, I think it’s worth examining that idea in relation to V Column, an album the best part of which is occupied by three tracks in excess of seven minutes.
In critical theory the ‘epic’ is distinguished from ‘narrative’ and ‘lyric’ forms, all of which are given meanings somewhat different from those usually ascribed to them, but the epic is importantly distanced from the personalised, easily identified-with subject (or protagonist) of narrative forms. Even when it has the appearance of narrative, it is nevertheless, by definition, concerned with archetypal, mythical, a-personal themes. Clearly this is not always consistent with common usage, as shown in the gritty realism with which the characters in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy novels are drawn, where the ‘epic’ character of the work is ascribed to its huge scope. However, there is clearly an element of the more specialised sense of the epic in music such as doom metal, and its sub-genre of epic doom.
There are echoes of epic doom in some of what Awooga do on this album, and also elements that remind me of music that is epic in other ways. Specifically there is a repeated use of a heavy, crystalline reverb, that recalls space rock of the sort practiced by Ozric Tentacles and Hawkwind, for example: it comes in on the guitar around three minutes into their opening track, and decorates the vocal in ‘Thief’ (among other places). There’s something about reverb, intended originally to give music a sense of location, that both distances and ‘over-locates’ a sound when it is applied strongly enough. There is no intimacy in a reverb heavy sound, and there is a sense in which its musical meanings become de-specified or mythologised: this is something that occurs not at the level of signification, of what the music may refer to, but of affect, in how the sounds hit our ears. The vast, impossible space created by the beautifully liquid reverberations with which this music is frequently imbued is one in which the listening subject’s experience is epic, irrespective of how they ‘read’ the music.
Awooga are very progressive in their approach, with long form compositions sketching dramatic sequences of some complexity, visiting a variety of dynamic levels in a way that moves beyond the simple quiet verse/ loud chorus clichés of much rock music. I’d hesitate to call this music metal, because although it gets pretty heavy at times, it never seems to pursue the heavy as an end in its own right: when the band lays it down hard it is usually possible to distinguish a number of textural elements other than the core guitar riffing within the sound, and melody is always paramount.
Progressive tendencies in rock can often tend toward an over-complication of musical resources, and a simplistic valorization of the romantic artist, in the form of the long-winded guitar soloist. Awooga do not fall victim to these pitfalls, instead developing their themes through textural variation, sectional development, and evocative melodic structures.
I have to admit that I haven’t yet got around to engaging with the lyrics of these songs in sufficient depth for them to significantly contribute to my critique: if the non-verbal meanings of V Column were less complete, less varied, less stimulating and less rewarding that might not have been the case. I will certainly listen more closely to the lyrical content in the future (and this album will be in my rotation playlist for some time to come), but I hope the band will take my failing as a compliment to their considerable abilities.
They show themselves capable of operating at a variety of tempos, in both chordally structured and riff based modes, and always groove tightly, performing their music in a way that never draws attention to technique, but nevertheless demonstrates a good deal of it. This music is all about groove, atmosphere and melody, never about showing off or self-aggrandisement. It demonstrates a great deal of skill, in composition, arrangement, performance and production; it shows how a music that is often shifted from rock’s usual province towards the intellectual, can remain visceral and heartfelt without sacrificing its musical sophistication, or simplifying its nuanced expression of specific musical meanings, however epic its soundworld may be. This is not dance music, or headbanging drinking music; but nor is it music for the geeky ‘collection’ of difficult technical features. It is powerful listening music, that offers to take its audience on an involving and, yes, epic, emotional journey.