he Montreal band Molasses specializes in worn-out, world-weary folk, weaving tales of desperation and depression with the air of people who have seen the world and come away from the experience somewhat saddened. The second song from their third album, “Valley Song,” aptly describes this group: “we are the broken-down people.” A Slow Messe, the group’s third album on frontman Scott Chernoff’s Fancy Recordings, stays largely true to this statement of intent, crawling through an intense set of barebones hymns spread out over a sprawling double album.
As on his past two records, Chernoff has assembled a crew of Montreal musicians, largely culled from area bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the Shalabi Effect. But unlike You’ll Never Be Well No More and Trilogie: Toil and Peaceful Life, the group’s other excellent releases, A Slow Messe is decidedly more fleshed-out and less minimal. The arrangements throughout this record, while still sparse and forbidding, are a lot denser than past efforts, surrounding Chernoff’s plucked acoustic guitar and impassioned wails with scraped strings, bursts of feedback, minimal piano, electric guitars, and singing saws. Past records certainly used all of the same elements, but applied much more sparingly.
The band’s newfound compositional diversity makes A Slow Messe their finest achievement yet, maintaining their trademark emotional intensity while also providing moments of absolute musical transcendence. One such moment comes on “Death March (Erksine’s Theme),” which closes with an explosive burst of horns, presumably playing a morbidly ecstatic epitaph for the title character. On “Whitey Blues,” an utterly unexpected electric guitar solo breaks out of the desolate soundscape of the verses. On the other end of the spectrum, “Insomnia” is the group’s most accessible song yet, with a clean acoustic guitar line and distant drums driving Chernoff’s verses. The song also features some gorgeous instrumental breakdowns, soaring heavenward even as Chernoff’s lyrics remain completely earthbound: “if I had a match, I’d burn Chicago down tonight/ and kiss you a quiet good night.”
Throughout all of this, Chernoff’s voice remains the group’s defining element: his cracked howls and moans are utterly engaging, capturing every nuance of his emotions with the sincerity of a Delta blues singer. His lyrics alternate between deeply personal confessions and folksy stories, echoing the downtrodden mood of the music.
Molasses’ songs are all instantly affecting, inflected with a post-apocalyptic angst that is stark and somewhat terrifying, and yet still strangely enveloping. Never has this been more true than it is on A Slow Messe; as the album progresses, you’re drawn into the group’s unique vision, until even tracks like the epic 12-minute death-crawl “Delirium Rag,” which opens the second disc, don’t seem excessive. The song earns its length with bleak poetics and a slow-building stomp which becomes hypnotic as it sprawls onward. The second disc continues this trend, acting as a more austere counterpart to the comparatively varied first, but the effect remains impressive.
On the devastating “Silkworm,” the song’s quiet beginning abruptly erupts into a harsh, atonal jam of squalling horns and feedback, from which Chernoff emerges on the other end, unscathed, singing “you are all I believe in.” And ultimately, this is the moment where it all clicks, and you realize what’s going on here. As dark and seemingly joyless as Molasses’ worldview often is, it is shot through with spots of powerful beauty, like sunlight shining through the trees in a haunted forest. For all of Chernoff’s lyrical despondency and the band’s accompanying fractured folk rock, what Molasses is really about is discovering the hope in a hopeless life.
These are musicians who see the world as a sad, scary place, but they deal with it by funneling their emotions into music: music which is often as sad as they are, but also contains passages of absolute beauty. They appreciate the small happy moments in life’s gray nothing, noticing a “symphony of pigeons” amidst the dirty bustle of city life. Listening to a A Slow Messe with this in mind, every second of it becomes a small epiphany, each screeching violin note and echoing guitar strum, each raw note of Chernoff’s vocals. In these troubled times, music like this seems especially appropriate. Molasses echo the inner turmoil of all the world’s forgotten little people, struggling to be noticed above a din of inane noise and official lies. Hopefully, this is one outcry that will be heard.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01