Patrick Walker has always struggled against genre-labels. After the release of 40 Watt Sun‘s previous album ‘The Inside Room’, he complained about their record label’s insistence on marketing them as ‘doom metal’, as well as the sidelining of his bandmates, bassist William Spong and percussionist Christian Leitch. Not coincidentally, the band have self-released latest offering ‘Wider than the Sky’. The band’s desire to move away from the ‘doom metal’ label is clear in Walker’s cleaner, more delicate guitar sound, replacing the saturated distortion of his previous work with 40 Watt Sun and Warning.
Although it certainly isn’t metal, ‘Wider than the sky’ invites all the adjectives usually used to denote heaviness: powerful, crushing, earth-shattering. But here they signify emotional, rather than physical, weight. The lack of distortion on the guitars allows Walker’s vocals and lyrics to come to the forefront. Instead of overwhelming the listener with sheer volume, 40 Watt Sun seek to engulf you in a cloud of sorrow, to completely immerse you in their emotional world.
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The songs on ‘Wider than the Sky’ are long. Opener ‘Stages’ is sixteen-plus minutes long, and most of the other tracks are around the ten-minute mark. But it would be a mistake to think of 40 Watt Sun‘s music as ‘epic’. This is an intensely personal album, whose songs of love and sadness manage to be both expansive and minimalistic in their arrangements.
In this way, the music has more in common with nineties slowcore bands like Codeine or Red House Painters than it does with doom metal. Whereas on ‘The Inside Room’ the spaces between notes would be filled with the jagged hum of guitars, here they contain the decaying sound of the band’s sparse harmonies, allowing the listener to wallow in their desolate beauty.
The cleaner guitars also allow for a wider range of dynamics. This is most apparent in ‘Beyond You’, which starts at mid-volume, slowly builds to a soaring climax at five and a half minutes in, and then gradually recedes with gently strummed acoustic guitar and tinkling piano. The song demonstrates the immense power of 40 Watt Sun‘s music, produced without reliance on familiar metal traits like distorted guitars.
Walker‘s vocals carry equal amounts weight and vulnerability, sounding bruised but not broken. At times, as on the heartbreaking ‘Stages’, Walker sounds disconsolate, his vocal melody searching for resolution and finding none; at others, he sounds hopeful, his optimistic, rising vocal line on ‘Pictures’ belying the darkness of the lyrics.
Despite the sadness of the lyrics and the length of the songs, ‘Wider than the Sky’ never comes off as self-indulgent misery. Listening to the album is a thoroughly cathartic experience; even without listening to the words Walker is singing, the music itself evokes such strong emotions it is impossible not to empathise. Whatever genre-label one affixes to the band, the only labels that matter are the adjectives used to describe this breathtakingly beautiful album.
‘Wider than the Sky’ is out now on Radiance Records.