Scott Morgan’s trajectory as Loscil, the moniker under which he produces his solo work, seems more befitting of a biologist than an ambient music veteran. Over the past sixteen years, Morgan has shaped his electronic sound around subjects like subatomic particles (Triple Point), shadowy ocean depths (Submers), shore life (First Narrows), and the traits of airborne substances (Plume). Even the intention behind his free-flowing arrangements is scientific, as Morgan has often acknowledged his aim to recreate the properties of water in music. But where his previous albums have aspired, almost methodically, to map the movement and texture of wave energy, Monument Builders, Morgan’s eleventh album, maps a more human, and less quantifiable, concept: life’s resistance to dark and destructive forces.
Extending the notions of community that were brought to a head on his recent EP for Greta—a charity album to raise money for a friend's child diagnosed with bone cancer—Morgan now charts the progression of life from the arid wasteland of “Drained Lake” to the first tiny sprouts of growth in “Weeds.” Monument Builders is a highly visual album, a mosaic of images depicting construction, erasure, devastation, redemption, and transformation. The sounds of micro-cassette recorders, decrepit samples, and grinding chains of percussion evoke a strong sense of place, the same way fuzz on a vintage videotape evokes age. “Red Tide,” with its layered percussive onslaught and brass like steaming train whistles, announces the rising of the sea, just as the cascading pianos of “Deceiver” very nearly resembles rain falling after a thunderstorm.
As is typical in his work, Morgan uses the first four songs of the album to mount tension. Darkness lingers in the title track, which builds around a single quivering note. The anticipation culminates in “Straw Dogs,” a menacing track with screeching horns, named in honor of anti-humanist philosopher John Gray’s book of the same name, which speaks to the dangers of placing humanity at the center of the universe. The ominous edge behind the compositions would seem to indicate that Morgan subscribes to Gray’s ideas about our own propensity for geological and social destruction. But the album’s three remaining songs suggest something slightly more optimistic.
“Deceiver,” with its weepy, penitent piano, eventually gives way to a high-pitch wailing that expresses acute feelings of grief. Gray’s philosophy seems to appear again in “Anthropocene”—the name for our current geological epoch, marked by harmful human centrality—and the song’s pulsating, intense bass line drives our guilt and grief through moments of self-reflection, mourning, and change. By the time we arrive at “Weeds,” the album’s final song, we are ready to confront punishment. Only we discover, from a murmur-like flicker of synth notes, that what awaits us are the sounds of human voices crying out from the dark. Among our distress and destruction, Morgan concludes, hopefully, that life persists.
In this way, Monument Builders is oddly reminiscent of “Directive,” one of Robert Frost’s last poems, which also advances ideas of survival and endurance. Much like with Builders, in “Directive” we follow a guide through a place of decay and dissolution. At the end of our journey, our guide says to us, “Here are your waters and your watering place./Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” Scott Morgan has made a career of showing us waters and watering places. With Monument Builders, we are finally invited to drink.
From 1999 to 2013, the American Wrestlers front man Gary McClure played guitar in the English shoegaze group Working for a Nuclear Free City. Despite being signed to the relatively small label Melodic Records (which just celebrated its 100th release in 2015), the band had big ideas and an even bigger sound—big enough, in fact, to land them a video game contract with Sony: they wrote “Silent Melody” for Infamous. Their dexterous, almost chameleon-like style stemmed from influences as disparate as Bill Evans and the Grateful Dead, and it managed to be psychedelic without sounding dated or hokey. Eventually, as band members began to focus more and more on solo projects, McClure took his omnivorous songwriting spirit elsewhere. He moved to St. Louis to marry Bridgette Imperial, and together they formed the core of American Wrestlers, whose self-titled 2015 debut was a similar grab-bag of musical influence.
With Goodbye Terrible Youth, however, McClure seems to be turning his searchlight inward. The six-minute bedroom-rock epics from the 2015 album are absent here, as are the eight-track Tascam recorders they used to record it. The obvious shadow of other artists has faded, and what’s left here is an aging musician looking through himself to create something new out of the old. After all, the album’s main subject is described in its title: terrible youth. McClure isn’t shy about his memory. He doesn’t wince when he looks back. These are unabashedly personal and reflective songs, often filled with regret and loss, ugliness and shame. But, as McClure boldly sings on “Hello, Dear,” “Where goes youth, I go.”
The album begins with “Vote Thatcher,” a death-obsessed track that speaks to a familiar theme for McClure: brutal policing. “I can always look to my son,” he sings, “to be stoned by policemen.” “Kelly,” the sixth track on 2015’s American Wrestlers, is also about police brutality, particularly the death of Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old homeless man who was beaten into a coma by six police officers in 2011. It seems like a strange thing to begin an album about youth and memory with a song about modern policing, but there’s more to it. “My life for your throne,” McClure mourns on “Thatcher,” “I still can’t believe you died.” The words echo over a haunting synth melody. What is he bargaining for? Who is he bargaining with? We don’t get an answer. And as much as the album is about McClure’s own experience growing up, it’s also about the people who don’t live beyond youth. In this way, the music reflects both promise and tragedy in equal parts.
Heavy guitar distortion—a staple in McClure’s work—colors over many of the songs on Terrible Youth. In “Give Up,” the album’s lead single, the constant buzz of rhythm guitar wins out over a catchy riff. “Amazing Grace,” a beautiful track about surrendering to happiness when the sun comes “bright across the rooftops,” bathes in a gentle hum, almost like sunshine itself. McClure’s use of distortion doesn’t evince ecstasy like it does for the Japandroids, nor does it mimic playfulness like it does for Youth Lagoon. The distortion here is something else, something distressing. “Metal moans will multiply,” McClure sings on “Terrible Youth,” “we’re death in motion.” If the “metal moans” behind the distortion represent anything, it’s the discomfort of remembering where we’ve been, and as McClure suggests, where we’re going.
What holds Terrible Youth back from becoming a really coherent, powerful statement is a kind of haphazardness in its arrangement. McClure doesn’t write choruses, he writes contrition, and sometimes this makes it difficult to take hold of any single resounding emotion in the music. Songs like “So Long” and “Blind Kids” rely on chord changes, but it’s rare for those changes, those shifts of feeling, to build toward anything greater. And beyond casting an ‘80s sheen over the album, synth rhythms and melodies aren’t given any other direction or purpose — they rev the engine without propelling the car.
Although the scattered nature of some of the songs keeps any single narrative from taking shape, the album is a significant improvement for a band that’s still coming into its own, still, in other words, in its youth. When the heartache of memory gets to be too much, American Wrestlers are there to show us, as McClure puts it best, that “All that weight/It could be but it’s make believe/And when it stops it’s nothing.”