Under the Weight of Water
Album Review by David Ferguson
I had a friend who used to be a Merchant Marine. He spent a lot of time on a ship that patrolled the edges of U.S. and Russian territory up around the Arctic Circle. He told me about how sometimes late at night, when the ship’s engines would idle down to a nearly inaudible throb and he laid in his bunk deep in the ship’s echoing hold, he would hear a cacophony of unidentifiable sounds.
“The ocean’s loud, man,” he told me. “And you don’t know what the hell is making those noises. It’s, like, interplanetary-sounding shit. You could drive yourself crazy trying to figure out what kind of messed-up, alien-looking monsters would make those sounds.”
Under The Weight of Water – the fourth album by Virginia-based antimusic ensemble The Sound of Machines – seems almost to be coming from a similar place, somewhere deep under thousands of leagues of water where the dark is only broken by pinpricks of bioluminescent light from creatures we’d probably rather not see in their entirety.
The first single and album opener “High Water,” begins with Rich Bernett, the band’s nucleus and sole constant member, inviting the listener to join him in floating aimlessly away on the ocean and letting go of everything.
“High water/low expectations,” he sings over an ethereal, nearly asymmetric groove awash in languid, almost drunken 60s harmonies like someone drowned The Zombies. “And why don’t we just quit and take the long way down?” he asks. “And how is it that we split from head to toe?”
Whether this abandonment of the comfort of shore is suicidal or symbolic, Weight leaves up to the listener, content to keep its secrets.
The song sets the stage for a slow-motion, ever-flowing parade of songs that drift like sea anemones on a current – “For the Sake of Living” – or boil along like a river on fire (“Blood for Sale”).
In the darkness of its undersea trench, Weight is a musical universe where some songs sting the face like delicate ocean mist and others remind us that an inch of moving water on a road is enough to send a car spinning and sliding downstream and ultimately drown everyone inside.
Still others – “The Dance” — convey at first a dreamy optimism that seems to belie the darkness of the album’s undersea-cavern sound…until the characters are trapped and swept away by circumstances beyond their control.
The men and women in Weight’s songs struggle under burdens of all kinds. A woman in “Infinite Line Around the Earth” tells the narrator, “I heard that scream a year ago/and it still lives inside my head.” The letter-writing narrator in “I Will Too” who maybe loves you a little too much promises/threatens, “Find a ledge to jump from, and I will too.”
On the title track, Bernett sings to a murder victim, “Your bones were stirred up/By the blades of an old outboard motor/Fragments of skull washed up on the bank of the river.”
It’s hard not to wonder at points if Sound of Machines has a kind of oracular gift-slash-curse regarding lyrics. Many of the album’s songs grapple with a kind of suffocating dread that may feel all too familiar to listeners in the age of COVID. Bernett has said, however, that all of the lyrics were written prior to the beginning of the pandemic.
Ultimately, The Weight of Water could not be a more aptly named record. It’s almost as if the songs, while distinct from each other, all arrive wet and shining like mysterious things hauled up in fishing nets. Through artful use of echo effects, lyrics like dialogue from dreams, mysterious buried noises, and actual samples of water sounds, Bernett has created a wildly immersive suite of songs. Jump in. Let it close over your head. Who cares about getting back to shore?
Under the Weight of Water will be available on all music streaming platforms Oct 24, but you can download the full album now via Rich’s Kickstarter campaign here.
David Ferguson is a writer and musician living in Georgia. He has worked as a radio announcer, journalist, editor and researcher. He is the lead singer of the band Kompromat.