Prior to finding myself enthralled by Pale Horses I’d never actually taken the time to listen to mewithoutYou, and the band’s latest release served as quite the introduction. Sure, I’d heard mentions, and read the odd news feature on absolutepunk here and there, but the Philadelphia five-piece had always remained a musical enigma I’d unconsciously ignored. There’s a chance I’d been getting them mixed up with Maybeshewill for years now, but I’d prefer to think that’s not the case. Regardless, I messed up; consider me an apologetic fool. Even if I had paid more attention, I’m not sure the whisperings from the social media stratosphere could have prepared me for the experience Pale Horses proved to be, and when I went into it I wasn’t expecting to find my favourite record of 2015, but did anyway. Listening to mewithoutYou’s sixth record made me forget about most of what I’ve listened to this year, an extraordinary release which is spellbinding on several levels.
Maybe if I’d been familiar with the band, maybe if I’d listened to 2009’s It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright when Rocksound gave it a 10/10 upon release then I wouldn’t have enjoyed Pale Horses as much as I did, but given the records outstanding quality that seems like an unfair assumption. It’s rare for a release to hold me from start to finish the way that this one did, but from the stirring guitars and cosmic kaleidoscope of Pale Horse to devastating closer Rainbow Signs there wasn’t anything I wanted to do except carrying on listening. It was like being wrapped up in a good book, and frontman Aaron Weiss is almost always an engrossing narrator as he pens lines on a number of personal and provocative themes, dwelling on faith and often doing so with dashes of classic literature (Joyce, Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare to name a few). It all makes for a vivid pallet, a record which is grand in scope and uncompromising in execution, and it’s been a while since I’ve been as hooked as I was when listening to it, perhaps not since Nouns’ Still, which I gushed over and named as my AOTY last year. In that instance it was moreso due to the records emotional nature, but with mewithoutYou it’s tougher to pin down. The bands sixth record is one which connected with me, and in it I found what I want in a record, even I’m still not entirely sure what that checklist might consist of. Often when I hit play I’m looking for a way to pass time, something to fill some silence, and taking anything more from it is a welcome bonus. Pale Horses isn’t a record I’ll ever play to kill fourty minutes – to do so would be putting it to poor use ultimately. This is a rich, rewarding record, and with each listen I only felt more absorbed, and to say that I think Pale Horses is special would prove an understatement. It’s a work of art, be it on the haunting, sombre Dorothy (‘I said: “if you can change your shape that easily can you take the form of my dead father? Because I think he would’ve liked to meet my wife” / And I know for a fact he would have liked my wife’) or the dense and dizzying Lilac Queen. It’s easy to lose yourself in it all, there’s something magic about Pale Horses, and it shines in every second. There is a light that never goes out, so to say.
Pale Horses numerous strengths are highlighted by the production of scene staple Will Yip, who’s production adds to a record which sounds incredible and is immaculately written. It’s gorgeously warm and emotionally worn, crisp guitar tones intersecting cushioned drums and Weiss’ own unique vocal styling’s. Part of the records appeal comes from the way it sounds, as well as the way it seems to constantly straddle the lines between several genres, and always does so with unerring grace and style, aided by Yip. Part folk, part post-hardcore, part indie-rock, always ambitious, Pale Horses is accessible and often emphatic whichever way it opts to shift. There’s a haunting, ethereal quality to Weiss’ vocals, which come across as robotic whilst maintaining an endearing humanity, and his delivery is complemented by instrumentals which rise and fall in time, and often do so without having to push too far to do so. There’s a restrained quality to Pale Horses which sounds anything but, and there’s a majesty which lends itself well to tracks like lead single Red Cow without trying too hard to achieve something monumental, take the twilight twang guitars of D-Minor or the shaky aggression of Mexican War Streets as further examples. Seventh selection Blue Hen builds delicately and then blossoms, rippling outwards as instrumentals overlap and Weiss speaks through the haze, balancing between calming and claustrophobic whilst accompanying one of the records best weaving arrangements. It’s a track which is beautifully put together, as are most, and each sounds accomplished; to an extent mewithoutYou make it seem very easy, and it only makes the record all the more convincing and affecting. From a musical standpoint Pale Horses is as good as it gets, and from the offset it never really puts a foot wrong, each song a highlight aside from Birnam Wood perhaps, which stands out as the records weakest track but remains very good anyway, its more forgettable nature highlighted by the songs on either side, Magic Lantern Days and closer Rainbow Signs, which were my favourite from the LP. The former unfolds in a starlit studio, inspiring goosebumps, like rediscovering In The Aeroplane Over The Sea underwater as Weiss laments ‘But neither time nor I could hold your 1985 Chernobyl heart’. It’s a stunning piece of music, but the record’s finale manages to top it, a six minute, beautifully layered epic which floats along on calm seas and peaks amidst a thunderstorm, the red dwarf namechecked on fuzzy Watermelon Ascot imploding at the end, electrifying. At the songs most chaotic Weiss yells ‘the mountains and islands moved from their place / And the sun would turn black as a dead raven’s back / But there’d be nowhere to hide from the Judge’s face’ reflecting the instrumental intensity, and his words resonate as the track, and record, fades to a grand close.
One thing I had heard preceding my first listen of Pale Horses was that the record is heavily spiritual, thematically speaking, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly apprehensive going into it as a result. I’m not religious in the slightest, and never have been, but instead of feeling alienated by the records lyrical content I found Weiss’ primarily spoken word prose admirably composed and, although his vocals are at times tough to make out I wanted to read along, if only to gain a further appreciation for a record which had already done more than enough to win me over. It’s similar in a sense to how I can enjoy a Norma Jean record without focusing too much on what’s being said – and my own opinions of it. Pale Horses is good enough that it doesn’t really matter to me where the lyrical inspiration comes from, and even if it did there’d be plenty to enjoy outside of lyrics which may not appeal to an atheist listener.
If mewithoutYou have released a record superior to Pale Horses over the last fifteen years then I look forward to hearing it, if only to see if the feat is achievable. Whatever expectations I had of the release were easily surpassed, and if, come December, the band’s latest record isn’t my favourite of the year then I’d be surprised, because Pale Horses at this moment feels unbeatable, and it’s an exceptional, and essential release from a band I’m eager to learn more about. Since starting this blog I’ve reviewed around one-hundred and fifty releases, and as far as I know this will only be the second 10/10 I’ve given in that time. Pale Horses, quite simply, is a masterpiece, and I implore you to give it a chance. You can stream / purchase it digitally here whilst I delve into the bands entire discography and hope for something equally remarkable.
Listen to: Mexican War Streets, Magic Lantern Days, Rainbow Signs
You’ll know where to find us our best years behind us
Barefooted pilgrims in shrines of our youth:
‘Our joy was electric, our circles concentric’
Converging on statues of permanence and
Death, where is thy sting?