Bridport export Douglas Dare demonstrated his knack for affective gravitas in September of last year with his Seven Hours EP, flinging tear-jerk emotion backed by James Blake reverence and a Thom Yorke simplicity. During our interview ahead of that release, Dare described it as a “step towards the album… kind of a subtle introduction.” Stellar effort “Lungful”, a solemn South London dirge (I think we’re beyond classifying Blake, Woon et al. as post-dubstep now), is the only remnant of that debut EP that exists on Dare’s premiere full-length, acting as a tether between the gradual decline of Seven Hours and the sheer drop that is the Whelm LP.
Links can be easily found between Dare and London’s Halls. Dare opts for skinnier, more organic timbres and Halls’ compositions can err towards a sort of drone-led post-rock, but the outcomes are largely similar. It’s huge, genuinely gigantic noise that exists and thrives in an incredibly insular way. It’s not timid self-reflection, but the power both exude, be it in slight movements on a piano or delicate echoes in the vocals, is drawn from within. Both have got a distinct human essence running through that will ensare, bewitch, capture and comfort. Halls’ Love To Give isn’t necessarily a thematic or sonic relation to Whelm, but there are similarities in the construction and, seemingly, the motivation.
First and foremost however, Dare is a phenomenal pianist – it’s no wonder Erased Tapes (label of Nils Frahm) snapped him up. On “Repeat”, accompanied by Fabian Prynn’s gorgeously erratic percussion, Dare uses beautifully basic piano, basically distilling the maxim ‘less is more’ into just over four minutes of Stygian, soulful balladry. If Dare’s voice had a twist of arrogance, even slightly, this could transform into an operatic affair reserved for the creepiest of Disney villains, like Frollo. “Caroline” is equally anthemic, a kind of eulogy set to music: “It’s been countless days since last you wrote/countless more since last we spoke.” The piano undergrowth, a kind of dynamically flippant sonata, is maudlin and emotive, evoking visions of long-dead composers scribbling away in squalid hovels in the 18th century, finally succumbing to syphillis, penniless and alone, the closing bars. Dark.
The electronic bent is strong too, although perhaps less obvious upon first listen. “Swim” is grave xx-esque electronica, with blackened whirs throbbing against the shadow of bass pulses. The rolling, romantic sustained keys and breathy backing choir make it definitely Dare’s, but the overall synth vibe is a lot more prevalent here than most of the record. “Unrest” could be a cover of Portishead, and is probably the one tune on Whelm that might fit that archaic post-dubstep tag.
Whelm is an album that hits home, and hard. It is dark, and at times difficult to find respite from the over-Whelm-ing inky-black sobriety. Glimmers of hope break in upon occasion, but they’re rare and fleeting moments, all too easily lost within Dare’s morose deluge. He is obviously an adept musician, and if you can stomach the hefty sincerity, that’s probably what you’ll walk away with remembering. If you’re not partial a surplus of vaguely gothic piano-lead pop, it might be more effective broken up into snack-sized chunks you can nibble on without getting sadness fatigue. Regardless of your ingestion method, denying that Dare has created a magnificent record would be plain foolish. Whelm is a Herculean debut.