If there is one thing to know about Saintseneca it is this: from day one it has been live band first, studio band second. But their shape and form grew out of their shows, involving a number of instruments played by multiple members, the music almost secondary to watching them maneuver and adjust to one another. They created remarkable intensity through quaint acoustic instruments and enough floor stomping to take down a house, which, given their circumstances, wasn't out of their realm of possibility: as veterans of the DIY circuit, they kept close company with the punk and hardcore bands playing living rooms and basements across the country. Dark Arc, the group's second full length and first for ANTI-, is the next logical step in their continued maturation from folk group to rock band: electric instruments, increased percussion, and song writing prowess. It's welcomed change, it's expected growth, and it's immensely satisfying.
For what it's worth, Dark Arc doesn't play its hand too quickly. Front man Zac Little and company are respectful stewards, easing their audience and art into the evolving sound. "Blood Bath" kicks off the album with Little's swift finger picking and recognizable nasally vocals. Maryn Jones (from fellow Columbus outfit All Dogs) quickly joins providing vocal harmony, and shortly after, light drum clicks. At first glance, nothing has changed. But after the song surpasses the minute mark a hollowing noise swells the soundscape, transitioning the song into the chorus - itself complete with poignant snare hits, loud strumming and multiple vocal tracks led by Little - followed by a searing electric guitar that moves the energy back to the verse, now beaming at the seams with vocals and percussion. The expanded sound is, in part, a result of Little writing songs on a half melted bass he found from when his bedroom burned down and his attempt to reconcile his style with ostensibly foreign instruments (the other part would be the major line up changes, which in addition to Jones, includes the Sidekicks' Steve Ciolek). Several songs ("Happy Alone", "Only the Young Die Good", "Uppercutter", "We Are All Beads On The Same String") highlight the new approach, each one opening with a distinct, if not solo, bass line. But the effects of switching from an acoustic to electric creative space are felt across the record. Even when the song is nominally acoustic, like on the veiled "Falling Off", where the stringed instrumentation and vocal harmonies that resemble Saintseneca's back catalogue dominate a majority of the song. But what defines the track is its "less is more" use of electronic sounds and expanded percussion - a technique they utilize multiple times throughout the course of the album. The discreet ethereal sounds contribute to the song's sharp emotional pull, the snare hits accenting the eventual we already know.
None of this comes off weird, or even out of place; in fact, it's quite the opposite. Saintseneca's early work was minimalist in nature - often the product of one central instrument providing the song's musical backbone - with ancillary support from other acoustic instruments to create a louder, fuller sound. As a result of this piecemeal approach, songs felt like a puzzle studied and put together. On Dark Arc the group employs a combination of organic and synthetic sounds to create songs both comprehensive and robust. Lead single "Uppercutter" is initially tame, a steady bass line supplying the verse with scant melody until parse piano and an empyrean vocal harmony set up the soaring chorus, and then everything drops, allowing Little to deliver the final blow. On the post-punk tinged track "Visions" Saintseneca fully embrace the drum kit, using it as more than a means to simply accentuate a strumming pattern and incorporate a full sequence to promote the celebratory, psychedelic character of the song. Then there is "Happy Alone", a conflicted song that utilizes all of Saintseneca's new tricks - blithe 60s pop guitar, unassuming percussion, prominent bass, and haunting synthesizers - to create a dense, enjoyable experience, despite the depressing message. They even use these methods in two transitional songs ("::" and ":::", respectively), both sub-minute tracks that advance the album cohesively from one section to the next. Even after spending nine months recording and finishing the album in an attic, Saintseneca took time to revisit the songs with producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, M. Ward) at his studio. The opportunity to reexamine the record with fresh ears compelled further critique and additional tracking, pushing their sound further, which certainly shows through the multiple textures achieved on Dark Arc.
Saintseneca is just as impressive on the lyrical side of the equation. In a genre that often solicits verbose writing, Little is effectively terse, even when his true aim is metaphoric sagacity ("Lust isn't blind though/ it's just a simple kind of/ supple seeing eye dog/ running into new walls"). And when that's too much, he'll write a little wordplay that says more in eight units than most accomplish in entire songs ("No, you've no use to know you anymore"). It's pithy, it's witty, it's memorable: all important qualities when most of the songs expresses malaise and doom. Dark Arc tends to ruminate on the adverse and caustic, often through a metaphysical scope, generating song titles that range from gloomy ("Happy Alone", "Only the Young Die Good") to downright violent ("Blood Bath", "Uppercutter"). But closer inspection reveals a resiliency not immediately available. On "Only the Young Die Good", a song weighing themes of guilt and absolution, Little posits, "If only the young ones die good/ I'd pray your corruption would/ slip like a slit in the wrist/ hack the hands, redeem the rest." Most of the songs on Dark Arc peddle these classic, symbolic dichotomies: good vs. bad; light vs. dark; eternity vs. death. Little addresses these struggles through spiritual metaphor and imagery (e.g quenchless thirst, seeking light, "salt pillars and garden snakes," etc.), explicating his personal acumen, and it's beautiful to witness his conclusions (or lack there of).
Any review of a 'folk band' - however you define that - would do a disservice without referencing the current revival the genre is experiencing. But to who? Certainly not Saintseneca, who continue to morph what it means to play folk music, whether that be stripped down to the bare essentials or layered with an eclectic sense of sound. One thing for sure: Saintseneca are one of the more exciting collectives writing music today, and given the songs on Dark Arc are already over a year old, you can bet they'll be prepping their next record fairly soon. Until then, I'll happily keep spinning Dark Arc until the grooves wear.