The fractious opener on the return to form album from post rock’s Dirty Three is as discombobulated as one may expect from a band so praised for their ability to shy away from convention; something Warren Ellis himself neatly summed up in a recent interview when he stated he took the more leftfield approach to getting girls: violin over guitar! Since 2005′s Cinder the instrumental trio have broadened their individual musical and artistic horizons: Jim White has settled in Brooklyn, recording and performing with the likes of Cat Power, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and PJ Harvey, while Mick Turner, residing in Melbourne, built his own studio and channelled his artistry into visual art, as Ellis’ continued work with Nick Cave’s Grinderman and the Bad Seeds led him to collaborate on scores for Australian Independent cinema in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Road.
It comes as no surprise then that when they returned to playing together, the dialogue that Ellis notes in their works returned to “the more improvised and instinctive approach of the[ir] earlier recordings”. As it plays out, Toward the Low Sun sounds entirely spontaneous: there is an often frenetic and disjointed discourse at the heart of the recording and an unpredictability bubbling under the surface, never more so than on ’Furnace Skies’, a mess of clattering symbols, plucked violin strings, distorted reverb and the industrial sound of brash electric guitar.
Released on Bella Union, Toward the Low Sun is sun-streaked with moments of poignancy; the chill and sparse piano chords of ‘Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone’ are at once romanticised and haunting, their beauty all the more isolated for the cataclysmic percussion which rumbles and cracks around them. ’Ashen Snow’ glistens; illuminated by the tamed bowed strings of Ellis’ fiddle, it wouldn’t be entirely out of place on one of his late film scores. ’Rising Below’ is restrained in rhythm, as it slowly, subtly builds with tempered drums and percussion which make way for the grating electrified violin like nails on a chalkboard, as sullen Spaghetti Western number ‘That Was Was’ edges along at a matured and assured pace, in no hurry, merely drawing in the barren vistas it brings to mind.
What each musician does with his instrument exemplifies their talent and refutation of any kind of musical boundary: the violin creates painstaking shudders of fury just as eloquently as Ellis translates melancholy into a flurry of tremolo strings, while White’s percussion wreaks havoc and mayhem just as figuratively as it parts for clearer skies and the calm before another storm. It’s the exchanges between each instrument that carry the record through; the voice of Turner’s guitar, as rhythm maker one instant and proud leader the next, that ensure this band have retained a free approach to experimentation, where each momentarily takes the lead and yet all are always aware of when to leave off and allow another to pave a new and uncertain path.
For a band traditionally wordless they paint an intriguing and ever changing palate comprised of Celtic influences, post-rock, experimental flair and pure creative intuition. Toward the Low Sun is, as the name suggests, the Dirty Three’s sonic interpretation of what could be a cinematic apocalypse of arresting beauty.