Album Review

Released March 25, 2016
Dylan Sonderman

​“I saw the end of time, I saw the world burning.” (“Deconstruct”)
On March 25th 2016, ambient/heavy band O’Brother released their third full-length LP, Endless Light. Based out of Atlanta, Georgia, the sludge rock/post-hardcore quintet consists of Tanner Merritt on lead vocals and guitar, brother duo Johnny and Anton Dang on guitar and bass, respectively, Jordan McGhin on guitar and backing vocals, and Michael Martens behind the drum set. I’ve been eagerly anticipating this record since I interviewed the band in July of 2015.
One of my first reactions was that I noticed the album isn’t as instantly heavy as O’Brother’s previous LP, Disillusion (2013). But then again, neither is a neutron star. I suppose starting out with the expectation of a repeat or direct continuation of one of my favorite records of the past five years gave my ears a bias they didn’t need. Perhaps as a result of this, it took me several listens for Endless Light to begin to really resonate with me. To be sure, even on the first listen, I felt it was a strong collection of material, but it wasn’t until the fourth or fifth listen that I began to find myself in awe. It’s pretty rare for me to discover an album where I literally like each song more and more every time I hear it again, but that’s how it’s been with this one.
“There is a crack in the hull of integrity, time is leaking in. Is there a line in the fine print of everything? Show me where it is.” (“Realm of the Physical”)
Even at a hefty 51-minute runtime, Endless Light is still the shortest LP the band has released to date. As one might expect, most of the songs are also much shorter than some of the lengthy tunes on previous albums. Beyond that, there is an abundance of slower tempos, more empty space (which was apparently a conscious effort by the band on this release), and less layers of guitars. The music has room to breathe. Still, whenever all three guitars are fully put to use, it's always to great effect, like at the end of  “I Am (Become Death),” the bridge of “Your Move,” and the crushing outro of  “Complicated End Times.”
The singles (“Your Move,” “Deconstruct,” and “Bloodlines”) all recall the band’s past material while still wandering into fresh territory. But, it’s songs like “Time is a Length of Rope,” “Realm of The Physical,” and the title track that really seem to tread new ground for the band. Mellower songs are nothing new to O’Brother’s canon, but there’s a new sense of calmness and maturity to be found on Endless Light. This album is not hurried. Just look at the closing track, “Realm of the Physical,” which ends with a solid four-and-a-half minutes of ambient bass feedback and volume-swelled guitar layered to produce an eerie milieu of dark contemplation. Urgency served the previous two albums quite well, and there’s still plenty of directness to be found here, but it’s no longer as center-stage as the space and dynamics of the compositions. While the shorter song lengths and frequent use of the verse/chorus/verse/chorus etc. structures seem to lend accessibility, there’s no compromise in the musicality of material.
Tanner Merritt doesn’t scream as much as on previous albums. Yet his distinctive vocals are still as powerful and commanding as ever, especially on “Bloodlines,” “Your Move,” and “Complicated End Times,” while showing new depths of reserve elsewhere on the album. Anton Dang still levels foundations with his imposing bass tone, often front and center in the mix. The guitars paint a vast array of diverse sounds onto the air. All these things are true about Endless Light. However, I feel that special mention is due for Michael Martens. The drumming on the album is superb on every song. In particular, “Complicated End Times” features some of Martens’ most compelling and driving playing to date.
“I just need a little time, to breathe and realign my ego and me” (“Complicated End Times”)
After further time and consideration, I realize that my initial disappointment arose because Endless Light is not as explosive, volatile, or dark as Disillusion, or as immediate and sprawling as Garden Window. But now, I see these facts as some of the album's greatest strengths. Because I know what O'Brother is capable of; I witness a tangible level of restraint that went into creating these songs. I’ve played around listening to tracks off of Disillusion and Garden Window on shuffle with songs from Endless Light and found that the new songs often mesh very well with the old favorites. Sometimes they even seem to stand out as the strongest compositions.
“I turned my head away, as you slowly dissolve.” (“Black Hole”)
The abstract concept of heaviness can manifest through music in many forms. From distortion and feedback, down-tuning, and screamed vocals to dissonant harmonies, quiet falsetto, and haunting reverberations, to philosophical and personal depth in lyrics, Endless Light burns deeply and persistently until it melts into the psyche of the listener. I find myself in disbelief that I ever felt this material wasn’t “heavy enough.” It’s just a different kind of heaviness.

“In truth, in life, in death, in light and dark, I will be with you.” (“Bloodlines”)

There’s always room for growth. And I look forward to the band’s future output with great optimism. But there’s no disappointment here and now. Ultimately, this album represents (another) serious artistic triumph for O’Brother.