2006's Palo Santo marked a bit of landmark for Shearwater with Jonathan Meiburg taking center stage as lead vocalist and the result was a much fuller sound that was way more ambitious than any of the bands previous work. The followup Rook has much work to do to keep up with its predecessor and despite a few bumps I'm pleased to report a worthy successor has taken up the crown.
The arresting cover image depicts a dark figure of a man with arms outstretched and cloaked head to foot in a swarm of rooks, His face is unrecognizable through the mass of feathered bodies and as you make your way down his solemn frame birds burst through his coat and emerge from pockets. He stands on a barren shoreline and the pallet for this scene is somber and dark with no hint of colour. While listening to the 10 tracks within, this image starts to take on new resonance and meaning. Rook is very much concerned with man's intersection with the natural world in all its facets from hunter to prey to the eventual extinction of species including mankind itself. Much of the record seems to come from a place so barren and wild that the very existence of human beings appears as nothing more than a haunting memory. Much like Palo Santo the music here can shift violently from a frail whisper to a calamitous boom and with Meiburg's unmistakable guidance Rook becomes a record of great visual power.
Though this record starts and finishes with two fine songs they don't seem like the right choices and had they been put in a different order Rook would work better as a complete concept. On The Death Of The Waters breathes life into the record with the faintest of breaths. Meiburg's vocals are as grey and as still as a winters day until the crashing waters change the scene in the form of a cacophonous orchestra. The violence of the two halves do seem to jar this early on in the record and it's not until the warmth of the opening guitar chords of the next track the we really start to settle in. Rooks is a glorious piece of work and one that we have come to expect from this band of late. With a steady drum pace and glistening musical rhythm section Meiburg's sweet tones drift gently throughout but show signs of teeth at just the right point. For me this feels like the album opener and it heads up a run of songs that form the spinal chord of this album and it's from these five songs that the structure and strength radiate.
Leviathan, Bound is a slow building song based around a gentle rhythm that ends in magnificent strings and ever increasing percussion subtleties while Home Life employs a similar structure originating from crackling drum taps and working towards an orchestral middle section that takes flight amid the soaring vocals of their captain. The music simmers like brooding weather patterns and changes direction with a glorious unpredictability, rising and falling, swirling and trickling.
Lost Boys struts proudly to a marching rhythm and triumphant horns tapering off slowly to the boiling might of Century Eyes. This is the first time the guitars have been given a proper run and they beat their fists with an energy of a force that has been kept under wraps for too long. Unfortunately the momentum that has been gathering ever since Rooks is somewhat dampened by some of the later tracks. I Was A Cloud seems to revisit this bands past at a time when the record was bravely conquering new territory and South Col's conceptual insistence might play to the theme of this album but slows things right down here.
Thankfully the shear scale of The Snow Leopard gathers these stragglers up in its all-encompassing arms and carries them away. It's often the case that a voice's true nature is found in its extremities and though Meiburg's vocal range is certainly extensive it is often held back like a force too powerful to unleash. Well there are fantastic glimpses of it here and it is only matched by the titanic mariachi horns that rise from the depths to accompany it. It's a colossal song and should really end the record. It feels like the band are giving it their all in a last chance show of power and the gentle melody of The Hunter's Star, achingly beautiful though it is, whispers in its wake like something of an after thought. It hurts to criticize as this song, had it appeared anywhere else in the record, would pierce you to the core with it's melancholy. But if song-order is the only thing that tries to drag this down then so be it, for at the beating heart of this album are some of the richest musical moments this band have created.