Our Lost Infantry – The New Art History
Record Label: Deep Elm Records
Release Date: November 15, 2012
Hard times call for hard choices: when people begin to realize that the order of things they were lulled into trusting blindly is failing them, they explode in every direction. Some channel their anger and frustration into civil unrest. Others take to the streets in violent protest. Still others look at the world around them and try to put things back together in the hopes that there’s a better life for all of us.
Some would call those people sitting in the last category philosophers or writers. I call them artists.
If there’s any way to characterize The New Art History, four-piece Our Lost Infantry’s debut release, it’s as social art, an attempt at reconstructing the status quo. Musically, it occupies a nebulous space between the majestic soundscapes of post-rock and the jagged corners of punk. Thematically, it’s bridging stories of personal and social strife. What’s most notable about it, however, is how striking it is: this isn’t your stuffy professor (or worse, your drunk roommate) lecturing you on The Lie That Is The American Dream but people who are troubled just as much by themselves as they are by the world, oftentimes just as conflicted as those listening. It’s the commitment to honesty—even in admitting that the truth hasn’t been found yet—and sense of urgency that make for an album rich with poetic insight and emotional catharsis.
Much of the album’s heft is owed to the sheer diversity of the music it channels, most of all in the interplay between post-rock and punk-rock. Opener “Kenning” introduces a dynamic that’ll recur throughout the album: the track begins with tense guitar interplay between brothers Joe and Thom Ashworth before the piano and drums slowly join in. It’s here that the song becomes interesting, though, as the progression follows post-rock patterns note-for-note while the structure more closely resembles that of punk, using repetition to emphasize the words, treating them as a form of poetry. Our Lost Infantry’s grasp on tension shines throughout The New Art History as they let their thundering walls of sound complement the raw, wearied lyrics.
This dynamic makes for an often intriguing listen, one that’s almost never obvious. It’s difficult to get a grasp on what they’re trying to do in just one listen, and subsequent listens keep divining new connections between the mounting dread of the music and the feelings of despair in the text. “Fearless” explores dark thoughts of dependence over a jaunty drum rhythm and a piano line that almost borders on sunny before slamming into pop-rock territory on the chorus: Lead vocalist Thom Ashworth cries, “this state of grace that we have found / you pull me up, you break me down / this state of grace exists between us,” before concluding, “we dare to dream at least in silence,” at the song’s conclusion. Whether this is his salvation or his downfall, however is a question that the band leaves wide open; the seamless welding of gorgeous post-rock motifs (driving piano melodies that evoke Maybeshewill), sugary pop-rock tropes (gang vocals), and opera (a theatrically angsty performance by lead vocalist Ashworth) makes it a bitter pill that goes down surprisingly sweetly. “The Tremors” pushes the dichotomy between light and dark further into ambiguity: again, the track has an amiable if slightly dark appeal, but when Ashworth wails of the things that “come out at night”, the drums take charge of the track, pounding his confessions in with the force of a jackhammer.
There’s a very palpable sense of frustration running throughout The New Art History, an almost primal anger if you will. There isn’t a display of despair on this album as naked as the refrain of “All The Streetlights Of My Hometown”: “All the streetlights of my hometown are blotting out the stars tonight,” laments Ashworth, and in the moment, it’s only natural to relate. The late-entry jump into churning post-rock territory is a perfect capper to the conclusion. “Avogadro”, meanwhile, features some of the most frank passages on the entire album: completely honestly, Ashworth confesses “This feeling I’m fighting a battle and losing / I can’t quantify what I’m trying to achieve here / This gift of clear vision that’s fading, dissolving / Stuck in a rut between feeling and hoping”, all sentiments that should be relatable to everybody. There’s clearly a battle being fought, but like Ashworth, most of us probably don’t even know which side we’re on. Both musically and lyrically, it’s one of the most striking moments on The New Art History and perhaps even in music in 2012. But if there’s anything Our Lost Infantry is assured of, it’s of the need to do something: “You can wait ‘till you’re dead to sleep,” declares Ashworth, a difficult point to argue for sure.
“To Meet Your Maker” explores feelings of inadequacy and helplessness brought on by hard times, perhaps the most overt piece of social criticism from a band that mostly speaks in abstractions: “A pragmatist I’ve always been but desperate to believe / In holy welfare handouts I’m not programmed to receive,” Ashworth sings, his voice on the edge of breaking, and the track around him could pass as a sort of demented ballad were it not for the drums pounding methodically, ready to declare his fate. He’s just as critical of himself, though: “You’re mumbling St. Anselm with a knife across your chest / This pretense of righteous anger, give it all a fucking rest,” he practically sneers in a deliciously heartbreaking moment of self-contempt. The band’s tendency towards introspection beautifully complicates issues that could come off as facile, and oftentimes, they realize that the biggest enemy to change may be themselves.
After “The Hollow”, the only instrumental track on the album, offers a short breather, the band finally approaches something resembling peace in its last two tracks. “Howl”, while as intense as the rest of the album it occupies, runs at a more contemplative pace as Ashworth talks of a place he dreams of, a place where he can finally meet somebody he’s been missing for a long while. “In disgrace with fortune and men's eyes / Such a perfect way to lose my mind / Take this gift of passion under fire / Desperate that we always find the time,” he beseeches, before the track abruptly shifts into a brief rhythm section that allows Matt Phelps on drums and Michael Parkin on piano a much-deserved showcase: if not as gorgeous as the first half of the track, the diversion sure is a breath of fresh air. We get a more assuring glimmer of light on the closer: where The New Art History largely swings with caprice from hallowed highs to stormy lows, “Day After Day” throbs with hope, the gang vocals soaring in ways that I thought impossible for this band (accompanied by some unexpected and very welcome brass instrumentation). Even Ashworth’s long rumination on where the world is headed ends with a definitive declaration that “I know somehow we're getting out.” In its last moments, the track gallops towards a resolution both painfully realistic but strangely uplifting: “Day after day / Cradle to grave/ I’m still the same boy I always was / If I should die, think this of me / I’m still the same boy I always was.”
And that strange oxymoron of an emotional state is where many great works of political art lie: they explore realities that are tough, dark, and even cruel, but they find beauty in the people who face them nonetheless. The New Art History is, in many ways, a tough nut to crack. It’s a sprawling, ambitious work about what our lives are really like, the prices we pay to maintain them—and the newfound clarity that comes with waking up and beginning to deal with them. It’s big and broad and bitter and lonely, oftentimes in the same bite. But the sense of honesty that strings all of these grand contradictions is the same honesty that leads Our Lost Infantry to its ultimately redemptive finale. These may be hard times, but the soundtrack just may get us through them yet.