It’s hard to believe how the span of time over which experimental folk band Cloud Caverns (Brandon Peterson, Dan Bouza) managed to reach its fifth album milestone of A Banner Year, feels both appropriately long and dramatically short. A mere two years have gone by since the release of previous record, Rivers Old and Lost and yet, the number of months seems longer, likely due to the sheer amount of change, stress, and lack of control that has pervaded every moment since then. During the gap between records, the rise of a pandemic-affected world changed everyone’s lives. However, as debilitating as this single problem was and continues to be, its arrival didn’t stop the challenges and unforeseen hurdles of otherwise typical, everyday life from forcing their way into the forefront as well.
Peterson knows this double whammy with an unfortunately deep level of first hand intimacy, which makes the introductory aspects of Cloud Caverns’ latest effort all the more poignant. Starting with the setting-encompassing title and all the way through opening track, “The Eleventh Hour Effort,” listeners are immediately shown the duality of broad and individualized tribulation that invaded Peterson’s livelihood and sense of self.
The eerily fitting nature of the lyrics to the song – all of which were written in 2019, well before any news of the pandemic even breached public discourse, let alone became a local active crisis – is perhaps the most unnerving part of the piece, as Cloud Caverns has never been known for defaulting to deliberately vague or flexible metaphors for the purposes of pandering of tying into a short term topic of value. In the case of details more specific to Peterson’s life, wrestling with a structural issue in his home is definitely no ubiquitous situation. And yet, the way parts of the verses are written, such as below, what is easily partitioned with a little context, is just as easily processed as a singular whole scenario without it. Here, there’s an easy likening to the weakening of the country’s governmental unity within a vital place like the Capitol Building, alongside the ongoing perils of the pandemic.
How many blows can this building take?
Nothing but holes, yet still it holds.
The death and the sickness,
The government’s gone to bed
– Lyrics from “The Eleventh Hour Effort”
While such a piling on of unavoidable difficulties makes the rest of A Banner Year seem like a listening experience that requires a place to duck and cover for refuge from the intensity of the remaining nine tracks, not all of Peterson’s intense recollections are of the emotionally draining variety. “Odd Thing,” which first emerged in fall 2019 as a delightful ode from Peterson to his very young daughter, is just as heavy and bold but the source of severity is instead derived from an unwavering stance built on love and care rather than that of abdication and negligence.
Musically, A Banner Year settles quite well in between Holy Gloom’s adventurous tonalities and fanciful imagery; the heavier, steady sonic core of Rivers Old and Lost; and the more instrumentally vulnerable, memoir-driven intention built into Collective Memory. Through songs like “Boris the Manskinner” – where an an 8-bit style crackling effect opens the song before tumbling into a thick but jagged bass tone and chugging lead guitar hook – Cloud Caverns’ flair for setting a scene once again prevails with finesse. Just the beginning effect instills a sense of pure instability, while the dense hook to follow indicates the song’s vivid title wasn’t chosen on a sole sardonic whim. The ways Cloud Caverns subtly layers varying components of a song – from title, to individual tonality, to order of appearance – in order to convey an emotion or sense of character in the strongest manner possible, is an approach that continually serves them exceedingly well.
Some of the more detail specific shifts from song to song feel more abrupt than others. The solo synthesized drum beats in “Social Awakening” ring out with a boldness that, while not an unfamiliar element in modern music unto itself, in a small way seems to break the comfortable spell of the space that descends whenever listening to a Cloud Caverns project. Not much may be off the table when it comes to what Peterson and Bouza will put in a song’s instrumental bones but, there’s something about the utter starkness of the sounds that makes the opening half minute sound the way it feels when snapping out of the comfort of a daydream.
When the stark sounds end and the kind of mildly reverb laden acoustic guitar strewn throughout Collective Memory begins, though the contents within the songs might change, the act of basking in reverie can easily resume. The same could be said for the start of “The American Man,” as the impact of the contrast between its opening digital drums and the soft, gentleness of Peterson’s voice is like a moment of tonal whiplash. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that change is constant and so, while the cumulative nature of Cloud Caverns’ musicality seems to leave one prepared and welcoming of just about anything, A Banner Year serves as the wake up call that even the most open-minded can become inadvertently accustomed to what’s otherwise been perceived as expectant variety. In other words, even those supposedly expecting the unexpected can get caught off-guard. As it is, by the time the album has arrived at finale, “Pleasant Hill,” this inclination for more synthetically driven introductions suddenly feels much more comfortable. It’s that moment where the water from the faucet goes from feeling uncomfortably cool to pleasantly warm and thoroughly embraced. The new becomes the now.
And yet, isn’t that exactly what so much of A Banner Year is about: the fielding of life’s experiences that go from the new to the now. That sentiment alone doesn’t classify or bestow emotional direction upon the events that Peterson captures on the album, which run the gamut from the joys of young life to the loss of life too soon. However, the idea of finding a way to contend with, and eventually adjust to, the ripples of unstoppable change and what proceeds to face us after the fact, is a mentality that connects every thread on the album – much the same way any and every unforeseen aspect of this banner year came to affect each of us around the world.
Now I’m back there in the rain
on that warm winter day
sipping tea and talking life
and how we always look for meaning
– Lyrics from “Etwas”
All proceeds from A Banner Year will be donated to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Center.
More information here.
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